Using Historical Novels for Family History 2

Good family historians want to know about the lives that their ancestors led and to put those ancestors into the national, local and social historical context of their time. We can and should, investigate that background by using reference books, websites and museums. A painless way of absorbing more information can be through reading historical novels. If the novels are also set in a geographical location that is relevant to our ancestors, they can be even more valuable. To be useful though, these novels have to be carefully researched and portray an accurate picture of life at the time. Like genealogists, there are historical novelists who are assiduous about their research and there are those who are slapdash, resulting in an end product whose historical setting is inaccurate or superfluous. The output of the latter can lead us astray.

How do we sort the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff? Personal recommendation works well and gradually a reader will get a feel for a well researched historical novel, in the same way that you can identify a family tree that has been carefully crafted. As with any source, check and recheck, do not believe all that you read. Statements can be self-perpetuating. You might find 9 trees on Ancestry saying that John is the son of Robert, that does not make it so. Person one posts a family tree to Ancestry, eight careless pedigree hunters (for they are neither genealogists nor family historians) copy that tree blindly, without any attempt to check its veracity. There are now nine incorrect trees on Ancestry. A careful researcher posts a different version of the tree, they are in the minority but they are correct. Saying things often enough does not make them true. Just because several books give the same information, this may still not be correct. Look critically at the work of others be it a family tree or an historical novel.

Historical novels then, should be chosen with care, read analytically but enjoyed as a method of immersing yourself in the times of your ancestors. For family history purposes, these need to be books where the historical setting is carefully described and is integral, not incidental, to the plot. Historical novels also play an important role in inspiring the young people in our lives to engage with their history and heritage. I have included a list of authors to suit all age groups, from toddlers to teens, in my booklet Harnessing the Facebook Generation: ideas for involving young people in family history and heritage. If you are concentrating on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there is a more detailed list here. The same site also suggests films, DVDs and games that introduce this period.

There is an extensive list of historical novels listed here, some of which have been reviewed. Inevitably their quality will vary. I am very picky! I have just dismissed a novel set in 1867 for mentioning cardigans and suitcases. To be fair, cardigans were named in the 1850s but were hardly everyday wear for governesses a decade later. During December, I blogged about a different historical novelist for every day of Advent. So here are twenty four that you might begin with and which I can vouch for. I should add that three of them wrote about Roman times, which may not be so helpful for family history purposes! There are many, many more well researched historical novels; perhaps we can share our favourites.

About Janet Few

Janet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who writes and lectures regularly on these subjects throughout the English speaking world. She is well known for her appearances as her alter ego ‘Mistress Agnes’ who aids Janet’s work as an historical interpreter. Janet is the manager of Swords and Spindles, a company providing living history presentations for history groups and schools. For further information see

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