Historical fiction focussed on characters' "worldview"
May 5, 2020 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for historical fiction which provides an in-depth look into the worldview of characters in any time and place.

I really enjoy historical fiction which provides an in-depth look into the worldview, inner life, and moral reasoning of characters. Any recommendations? :)

In contrast, I'm not too into the genre when it prioritises world-building over character development which is realistic given the cultural and historical context. I tend to gloss over lengthy descriptions of architecture, landscapes, clothing, etc.

Bonus points for well-written women characters and plots not primarily driven by romance or courtly intrigue. I'm open to books set in any time period or place.

A few books I've read which ticked this box, to varying degrees:
Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Women in the Wall by Julia O'Faolain
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
John the Pupil by David Flusfeder
posted by louxloux to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Mildred Pierce
I'm re-reading it right now because we've got it for our office book club this month, and I just love this book. I think it's got a lot you will like.
posted by phunniemee at 10:35 AM on May 5

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym spends quite a lot of time inside the mind of the woman who narrates it. She’s an unmarried woman in 1950s England. She’s also a bit... odd; you’ll either be infuriated by her or find her charming and relatable.
posted by mekily at 10:40 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

You want Hild by Nicola Griffith. It's practically SF, in its portrayal of an entirely alien world-view (northern England in the 8th century CE).
posted by suelac at 10:49 AM on May 5 [7 favorites]

This novel, Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, explores the worldview of people living in 18th c. capitalism so astonishingly well that I felt I managed to understand how the slave trade became normalized. (This historical novel shared the Booker prize in 1992 with Ondaatje's The English Patient.)
posted by nantucket at 11:01 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

Hilary Mantel is my gold standard for this. I think it's a bit of a scandal how much she can make me relate to someone like Thomas Cromwell or Robespierre. It's all about getting into these people's heads.

Also extremly good at making me dive into an alien mindset: Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. Passion, lies, guilt and atonement in medieval Norway, and a fair bit of religion, because, well, medieval Norway, so you've got a lot of attention for internal states.
posted by sohalt at 11:09 AM on May 5 [14 favorites]

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset would fit the bill for what you're describing.
posted by jquinby at 11:11 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

I came in to recommend Things Fall Apart, so hopefully I'm thinking along the right lines, but My Antonia by Willa Cather is my absolute favorite.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:18 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles, is a pretty thorough exploration of the Victorian mindset.
posted by sohalt at 11:19 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Precious Bane by Mary Webb
posted by gudrun at 11:33 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
posted by Beardman at 11:33 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

I love Judith Merkle Riley’s books partly because she doesn’t ignore the numinous side of things that her characters would have believed in or experienced. The Oracle Glass is set in France during the Affair is the Poisons, and is maybe my favorite, but I recommend all her books and wish she were better known.
posted by PussKillian at 11:40 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]

Nthing Hilary Mantel.

The Golden Wolf Saga by Linnea Hartsuyker is good- its about the rise of Harald Fairhair as seen through the eyes of one of his allies and his (the ally's) family, including a sister who (minor spoiler) helps establish Iceland. It hits a similar "historical political intrigue made to feel real and relevant" feel as Mantel's books, for me.
posted by damayanti at 11:41 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

I'll also throw in Silence by Shūsaku Endō. No bonus points for woman characters, though - the protagonists are all Jesuit priests.
posted by jquinby at 12:27 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

So Big by Edna Ferber!
posted by jabes at 1:20 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]

Oh oh oh also The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is incredible at worldbuilding -- it's set in pre-medieval England during the Norman Invasion and immerses you in what it was like to live during that time.

The catch is that it's written in an invented pseudo-Old-English language, so you have to be willing to struggle through the first few chapters as you get used to the language. It gets easier after that.
posted by mekily at 1:28 PM on May 5

My Brilliant Friend and its sequels, by Elena Ferrante? Not sure if Italy of the 1950's is historic enough.
posted by umber vowel at 1:38 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Perhaps try Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks?
posted by CiaoMela at 1:53 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is an early mystery novel written as a series of first-person narratives by characters who often spend quite a lot of their time explicating their worldview and moral reasoning. (It's also a very fun read.)

I think first-person narratives in general tend to do what you're looking for.
posted by trig at 2:16 PM on May 5

Aztec, by Gary Jennings

A 1st person POV narrative of the Aztecs just before the coming of the Europeans.
posted by mule98J at 2:26 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Marguerite Yourcenar's Mémoires d'Hadrien and L'oeuvre au noir fit the bill. The first is the fictional memoirs of the Roman emperor, and the second is about a Renaissance alchemist.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:49 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]

Halldor Laxness's Independent People (late 19th/early 20th-century rural Iceland).
posted by praemunire at 3:50 PM on May 5

Pat Barker's WWI series, beginning with Regeneration.
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower
Restoration by Rose Tremain
posted by Miss T.Horn at 3:51 PM on May 5

Wayne Johnston, Colony of Unrequited Dreams
Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
almost everything by Toni Morrison
posted by Miss T.Horn at 3:53 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

I second Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger. I also just finished another book of his, The Ruby in her Navel, which I think fits the bill.

And nthing Kristin Lavransdatter. It's long, but I really enjoyed that one a lot and from your list of books it sounds like we have similar tastes in this genre.

You might take a crack at The Luminaries also. Great book!
posted by cpatterson at 5:06 PM on May 5

Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, The Years of Rice and Salt fits the bill. Instead of wiping out part of Europe, the Black Death wipes out virtually all of Europe, extinguishing Western Civilization as we know it. What follows is hundreds of years of exploration, expansion, and enlightenment founded in cultures that are not of Europe: North America gets settled from the West Coast, for example. And since it spans so long, a lot of characters have to paint their chapter of history in a brief length of the novel, so each section of history has to put their zeitgeist forward for the reader.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:05 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

A Dead Man in Deptford, by Anthony Burgess, does this well for Elizabethan England.
posted by phoenixy at 2:08 AM on May 6

The Crimson Petal and the White!
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 4:57 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]

I'm a big Geraldine Brooks fan. In addition to Year of Wonders, Caleb's Crossing is told in first person POV in 1640s by a Puritan settler adolescent, who's jealous of the Cape Cod Native kid who's attending Harvard.
posted by Jesse the K at 10:06 AM on May 6

Thanks all for the amazing recommendations. These will keep me busy for quite awhile. (This was my first post on AskMe after lurking for 10 years, so I'm glad I finally took the plunge. :))

I recognised the cover of "Year of Wonders" and realised I'd sneakily read it in middle school. Perhaps it had a big impact on my later literary preferences!
posted by louxloux at 4:46 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

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