Good Historic books
May 24, 2008 1:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in reading more fun books, written in 1945 or earlier, which clearly set themselves in the time and place that they were written. Examples include Anne of Green Gables, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, Pride & Prejudice, and China to Me.

Some more of my particular favorites are:
Jane Austen: Persuasion
Elfrida Vipont: The Lark on the Wing, The Spring of the Year
L.M. Montgomery: Rilla of Ingleside, The Blue Castle
Emily Hahn: England to me
Dorothy L. Sayers: Clouds of Witness
Noel Streatfeild: Movie Shoes, Theater Shoes, On Tour

I'm not as interested right now in finding good historical fiction -- it's just not the same as a book coming out of that time and place. (Witness Dorothy L. Sayers' series and the two additions that were written in the 1990's.) I'd also like the books to be reasonably easy to read, fun, or light (or medium). I don't want to have to read anything else to understand or enjoy the book.

I like children's fiction, mysteries that aren't too gory or scary, regular fiction, biography, biographical stories, and probably more that I'm not thinking of just now.

I've seen this post.
posted by Margalo Epps to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
posted by ericb at 2:06 PM on May 24, 2008

The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford for the period between the two world wars, if you're into the (rather silly) adventures of the aristocracy in England during that time.
posted by bcwinters at 2:09 PM on May 24, 2008

Also Evelyn Waugh. For sunnier skies, Raymond Chandler's Farewll My Lovely.
posted by Rash at 2:19 PM on May 24, 2008

Re children's books, Is Laura Ingalls Wilder too far off? The series, just forget the lame tv show and read it. My favorite has always been Farmer Boy. Also, The Man with the Golden Arm. And Dickens.
posted by dawson at 2:32 PM on May 24, 2008

John Steinbeck - Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and Grapes of Wrath are pre-1945. Cannery Row, at least, is fairly light. YMMV with the other two.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 2:36 PM on May 24, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls
posted by furtive at 2:36 PM on May 24, 2008

PG Wodehouse, especially the Jeeves books.
posted by kimdog at 2:36 PM on May 24, 2008

Three Men In A Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. It's one of the greatest books of all time, as well as one of the least difficult to enjoy.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:54 PM on May 24, 2008

I'm assuming since you've read other books by Noel Streatfeild, you've also read Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes, but if you haven't, they're both excellent.

Sherlock Holmes?
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 3:00 PM on May 24, 2008

Try The Way We Live Now.
posted by jennyesq at 3:00 PM on May 24, 2008

Ask the Dust by John Fante. And all of Fante's other pre 1945 work.
posted by fire&wings at 3:11 PM on May 24, 2008

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is great. It's set in 1930s England, but was written in the '40s.

Any of the Lucia novels by E.F. Benson are hilarious, but the series really gets off the ground with Mapp and Lucia. They're kind of like Jane Austen novels but from the '30s and with the irony turned up to 11.
posted by apricot at 3:15 PM on May 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

E.M. Forster, A Room With A View
Edith Wharton, The Age Of Innocence
Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes
old Agatha Christies can be good for this, for instance Murder On The Orient Express
posted by Melinika at 3:19 PM on May 24, 2008

The Master and Margarita partially works, in an interesting way.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 3:23 PM on May 24, 2008

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women.
posted by dreamphone at 3:30 PM on May 24, 2008

Everything by Edward Eager.
posted by leesh at 3:32 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I do love Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little house books, but I didn't include them in this list because they were written long after the fact. (Sixty years, I believe, she says in the first book.) It seems like there should be a special category for books which are more modern, but are written about things the author knows first-hand, like Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books, or even Eva Ibbotson's A Song for Summer.

Thanks for all the great recommendations! I just placed a lot of holds at the library.
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:34 PM on May 24, 2008

18th c.:

Fanny Burney, Evelina. Amusing social satire (and, unlike later Burney, not a doorstop).
Daniel DeFoe's Moll Flanders and Roxana.

19th c.:

The aforementioned Dickens.
In France, Balzac would appear to be your ticket.
Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons (possibly more Gothic than what you want--it's very indebted to the Brontes.)
Trollope's Barsetshire and Palliser novels, in addition to The Way We Live Now. Trollope's mother, Frances (Fanny) Trollope, wrote a number of entertaining lighter novels (figuratively and literally), including The Widow Barnaby and The Vicar of Wrexhill.

20th c.:

John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy (although the experimental "cinematic" technique may make this a little more taxing than what you're looking for).
posted by thomas j wise at 3:44 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Eleanor Estes's Moffat books were written and are set during WWII. I always found them fascinating, as a day-to-day look at life during the war (victory gardens, knitting washcloths for soldiers, etc).
She also wrote the Pye books, which were written later (1950s) but set earlier (1920s).
The Great Brain books would also fit into the Betsy-Tacy category, and are a great look at life in Utah at the turn of the century.
posted by katemonster at 3:45 PM on May 24, 2008

Seconding Dickens. Also Wilkie Collins.
posted by futility closet at 4:10 PM on May 24, 2008

Augustus Carp Esq by Himself.

All of the Mapp And Lucia books.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Cult classics, every one, and all worth your time. Pass the message.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:35 PM on May 24, 2008

Goodbye to all That, autobiography by Robert Graves.
posted by RussHy at 4:51 PM on May 24, 2008

Let me echo John Dos Passos and E. M. Forster (though I'd go with A Passage to India personally).

Also, Graham Greene and Virginia Woolf.

I'm not sure if you're only interested in books originally in English or not, but in case you're not, might I recommend Halldór Laxness (Independent People) and Tolstoy (Anna Karenina).
posted by Kattullus at 5:14 PM on May 24, 2008

People Who Say Goodbye by P.Y.Betts
posted by IndigoJones at 5:23 PM on May 24, 2008

North and South and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.
posted by weebil at 7:38 PM on May 24, 2008

Well, have you finished every novel L.M. Montgomery ever wrote yet? :) (It should take a little while, and if you've gotten to The Blue Castle you've hit on the very best. But all are worth a read. The short stories are a lot more uneven - especially the collections published after her death). There are also the books of Susanna Moodie recently, which aren't fiction but certainly put you definitely into a time and place, from the perspective of a woman who was there (for yet more Canadiana).

On the less light - not so much difficult to read as less emotionally light - I would also highly recommend E.M. Forster. Maurice is my personal favorite, and not as dark as A Passage to India (which is the better novel, on artistic grounds). Rumer Godden also has some very good novels, set a bit later (1940s, 1950s), but not modern - The Peacock Spring, for example, is about an English girl in 1950s India. Another favorite of mine is the The Ginger Tree, by Oswald Wynd.
posted by jb at 7:58 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, I would second, third, fourth, etc, the Edward Eager books - brilliant children's books, often seemingly forgotten in modern childrens' library collections. Again set in the 1950s, but a different world from today.

There is a whole genre of these novels to explore as well, beyond those by Eager. I remember one by Hilda Lewis called The Ship that Flew - which is as much about early 20th century England as it is about the fantastical places that they went.
posted by jb at 8:02 PM on May 24, 2008

nthing Waugh.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:14 PM on May 24, 2008

Elizabeth Enright. Wikipedia. Children's books - the first three books of her quartet about the Melendys starts within your time frame. The Saturdays is the first - New York, 1941. In The Four-Storey Mistake the family move to the ocuntry and there are details about the war effort.

You might also like Erich Kastner's children's book The Flying Classroom, 1933. I can't speak for how accurate it is about children's lives in Germany in the early nineteen-thirties, but it's certainly interesting.

I like Edward Eager, but I'm not sure how much of a sense his books will give you about the world they're set in, as they are fantasy.

The five Katy books haven't been mentioned and give a good picture of one class and gender's life at the time. Susan Coolidge on Wikipedia. I can't believe looking the books up led me to a vintage lingerie shop!

The Way We Live Now has been mentioned. You might want to start with lighter Trollope as you say you are looking for "fun" books - Framley Parsonage is one of my favourites. Mind you, anyone who thinks that Rilla of Ingleside is fun ... I thought it was one of the most depressing books I'd ever read.
posted by paduasoy at 2:49 AM on May 25, 2008

Mind you, anyone who thinks that Rilla of Ingleside is fun ... I thought it was one of the most depressing books I'd ever read.

Well, it is about World War I. I don't think anyone could be honest to the experience and not write a novel with extremely sad parts. Montgomery found humour among tragedy, but didn't shy away from the tragedy.

But it's also no Thomas Hardy - there is still hope for the world at the end. Hardy was one author I was thinking of as a novelist who captures a time and a feel, but is completely and utterly depressing.
posted by jb at 9:04 AM on May 25, 2008

The works of William Hale Wright, writing as Mark Rutherford.
posted by Abiezer at 10:40 AM on May 25, 2008

Response by poster: Well, have you finished every novel L.M. Montgomery ever wrote yet?


Mind you, anyone who thinks that Rilla of Ingleside is fun ... I thought it was one of the most depressing books I'd ever read.

True. I daresay it is more of an example of being firmly set in a time and place. And it is easy to read, more medium than light. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers is not exactly cheerful either. It's funny, that's actually exactly what I thought of The Good Earth -- most depressing thing ever. There's no accounting for taste.

And yes, Edward Eager is both fun, and only somewhat set in time and place, rather like Swallows and Amazons, because they're really about child adventures and barely touch the adult world.

I do love the Melendy series, particularly the Spiderweb for Two, which is full of riddles to solve.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:43 AM on May 25, 2008

Uh, katemonster, the Moffat books were set during World War ONE...however, the Pye books (Pinky and Ginger) were contemporary.

Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, which was made into a hilarious movie about twelve years ago.
posted by brujita at 10:53 AM on May 25, 2008

Saki's Reginald stories (available online, if you want to sample first) for that Edwardian touch and Charlotte Bronte.

I second the Balzac suggestion.
posted by ersatz at 12:21 PM on May 25, 2008

You might light the mysteries of Ngaio Marsh. She started being published in the mid-1930s, and many of her books are in your time period. Many of them also have a deep sense of place not just in physical location but also in what you might call "milieu" -- in her case, in the theatre and performing arts. Some are also in her native New Zealand.
posted by Robert Angelo at 2:17 PM on May 25, 2008

Babbit by Sinclair Lewis fits the bill.
posted by saladin at 3:58 PM on May 25, 2008

If you like L.M. Montgomery and Anne of Green Gables, you'd probably enjoy A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. Don't read the plot part of that link if you don't want to be spoiled. It was written at about the same time as Anne, and set in the time in which it was written (1905-1909). It is an inspirational coming of age story about a plucky young girl very much like Anne of Green Gables, but I don't think it's derivative in any way. The characters are very different and I'm not sure how familiar Stratton Porter would have been with Montgomery's work since Limberlost was published in 1909, a scant year after Anne of Green Gables began being published as a Sunday serial in Canadian newspapers.
posted by katyggls at 3:33 AM on May 26, 2008

You might like Meet The Malones (1943) by Lenora Mattingly Weber. It's about an Irish Catholic family living in Denver during the war, and is very much of its time. Weber wrote 13 more books in that series, but the rest are all post-1945 (ranging from 1948 to 1969).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:09 PM on May 29, 2008

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