Top three historical fiction authors for family history context

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05 March 2021
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We take a look at three historical novelists whose work can help with you understand the world in which your ancestors lived.

Genealogist and fiction fan, Kim Cook, shows how a well-chosen novel can be just what you need to gain a richer understanding of the worlds your ancestors once lived in.

While family historians must be meticulous in their research, sticking always to proven facts, there are many times when context and atmosphere are sadly lacking. It is in this area that observant, well-written fiction can provide what is missing.

The below five authors can help you find out more about your UK ancestors' lives and times:

1. Bernard Cornwell (1944 to present). Genre, period: Historical fiction, particularly military history of 1899-1821

Cornwell, a prolific author, historian, and family historian, brings great authenticity to his historical fiction. Using historical records, in his series of 21 books about Richard Sharpe, Cornwell accurately portrays the background to British Army actions of the 19th century. All except three of the battles depicted in the Sharpe books were real battles, described from official records.

2. R F Delderfield (1912-1972). Area: South London Suburbs, Manchester, Devon

Delderfield grew up in the suburb of Shirley, on the London-Surrey border, and brings this location, typical of many suburbs, into a number of his fictional books. The Dreaming Suburb and The Avenue Goes to War, tell the story of a suburban community from 1919-1947. Delderfield was also familiar with, and wrote about, Devon and Manchester. God is an Englishman is the first in a trilogy which covers the development of road freight transport across England, from 1857 to 1914, with its implications for communities across Britain.

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3. Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-l865). Area: Cheshire and Manchester

Following the death of her mother, Elizabeth Gaskell was sent to live with an aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire (which became ‘Cranford’). After her marriage she lived in Manchester, where her husband was a Unitarian minister, and its slums feature in Mary Barton. Ruth was based on the real-life story of a girl Mrs Gaskell had visited in prison.

She also wrote The Rural Life of England, which included notes on Cheshire customs, and North and South which tells the story of a girl from the rural south who moves to an industrial northern town, providing interesting comparisons. Her keen observations on environments, social conditions and manners can be applied to many families.

Blog adapted from an in-depth article in the April 2021 issue of Family Tree magazine.


About the author

Kim Cook started researching her family history while still in her teens – without the benefit of the internet!  In 1977 she was a founder-member of the East Surrey FHS, and in 1987 of the one-name society, Witheridge FHS, of which she is now Hon President. Over many decades she has taught family history, written and presented courses and seminars, researched for clients, and encouraged other researchers along the way.  She now focuses on research and writing, and is working on the 2nd edition of her ‘Dictionary of Family History’.