Historical Fiction About Real People

Sometimes a biography just doesn’t cut it. When it comes to a gripping story about a real person, a just-the-facts approach can be utterly compelling—but what if the subject isn’t so cut and dry? What if we can’t ever know the full picture? This is the playground of historical fiction, and in the right hands, these fictionalized accounts of nonfiction lives can open your eyes to subjects you thought had already been thoroughly explored. Here are six to add to your bookshelf.

I, Ripper, by Stephen Hunter
Jack the Ripper, whoever he was, has an honored place in the pantheon of most-explored figures in literature. Normally we experience the never-identified Ripper’s gruesome acts from an outside perspective, but Hunter goes where few others dare: inside the mind of the maniac. Through diary entries, Jack not only provides grisly details of his Whitechapel murders, but also his reactions to the media coverage surrounding them. Which brings us to the second point of view in I, Ripper: that of an Irish reporter, Jeb, who wants not only to break the Ripper story, but solve the mystery. The result is an engrossing, disturbing read that explores a well-trodden subject with an entirely fresh take.

The Last Bookaneer, by Matthew Pearl
Pearl may be the king of an as-yet-unnamed subgenre of historical fiction I’ll call “lit hist myst.” With The Dante Club, The Last Dickens, and The Poe Shadow under his belt, he has explored a host of literary mysteries, and his latest effort is no exception. A bookaneer, for inquiring minds, is more or less a literary pirate, operating in the seedy underbelly of 19th-century publishing and squeezing copyright loopholes for all they’re worth. As the long arm of the law threatens to choke out their way of life, these mysterious operatives plan one last heist, an Ocean’s 11 for the Random House set: they plan to steal the final manuscript of a dying Robert Louis Stevenson. Paging George Clooney: I would watch this movie.

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain
In her last novel, The Paris Wife, McLain probed the troubled union of Ernest Hemingway and first wife Hadley. Here she sets her keen sights on another extraordinary woman and tempestuous love affair. Born in Britain and raised in Kenya, Beryl Markham was a record-breaking aviator, the first woman to cross the Atlantic from East to West. As is true of many an Earth-shaker, Markham was a complex woman, who lived large and loved deeply. McLain delves into Markham’s life before her monumental flight, focusing particularly on her love triangle with the aristocratic hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Out of Africa author Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen). That romance is a springboard to Markham’s future in the sky, and an enthralling read for those of us stuck on the ground.

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman
When it comes to writing about the loved ones of famous people, mothers usually get the short end of the stick. More often it’s the spouses and lovers we use as a device to peek behind well-known curtains. To the rescue comes Hoffman, who paints a vivid portrait of the woman responsible for bringing us one of the stars of Impressionism, Camille Pissarro. As we see her, Pissarro’s mother, Rachel, is a bright, determined young girl, struggling to live life by her own rules. Forced into adulthood early by marriage to an older man, Rachel is then plunged at a too-young age into the role of widow. From there, the story intensifies with her passionate relationship with her deceased husband’s nephew—Pissarro’s father—and gains even more momentum as it explores her complicated relationship with her talented son.

Villa America, by Liza Klaussman
As discussed earlier, there are favorite subjects in historical fiction, and F. Scott Fitzgerald is chief among them. But Klaussman isn’t here just to talk about Fitzgerald, or even Zelda, but to share the story of the two real-life inspirations for the author’s Tender is the Night. Sara and Gerald Murphy were a society couple who liked to dazzle high-profile guests—including the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway—in their French Riviera home. It’s a freewheeling salon of 20th-century luminaries. But as usually happens with things that glitter, all doesn’t remain gold for long. Their time was a turbulent one, and their flaws were many. But they sure are delicious to read about.

The House of Hawthorne, by Erika Robuck
The unlikely romance of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody takes center stage in Robuck’s decades-spanning novel. This couple embodied a merging of minds as much as hearts, and Sophia narrates this look at an incredibly durable marriage, highlighting every obstacle she must overcome, from her chronic ailments to persistent financial difficulties. An accomplished artist in her own right, Sophia watches her own creative impulses take a backseat to her role as a mother, which creates challenges in her marriage to her other strong-willed half. Much as Nancy Horan did for Fanny Stevenson in Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Robuck places the spotlight on an underappreciated literary wife.

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