Books

Lucy Mangan wants you to read these soul-soothing historical fiction novels

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Kayleigh Dray
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“Literary escapism will help you handle the present,” says Lucy Mangan.

At a time of poisonings, protests and, well, an unnamed celebrity biting Beyoncé’s face for god’s sake, I am seeking solace in the past. I am reading nothing but historical fiction.

It’s my safe space. I escape from the present into a world of kings and queens, via Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory (who cover English regal history down to the detail of the soup served). Then I jump to the other side and immerse myself in peasantry porn. 

I love the minutiae offered by Norah Lofts’ books (basically umptygenerations of serfs-in-Suffolk), Sylvia Townsend Warner’s medieval nunnery in The Corner That Held Them, Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind and Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole, which respectively bring 15th-century Somerset and 18th-century Yorkshire to life, plus loads in between. (Historical fiction newbies should try The Wicked Cometh, The House At Bishopsgate, The Last Hours, A Column of Fire, His Bloody Project or, well, many more). These stories let me live among Victorians, highland crofters, London plague victims, sheep farmers, 17th-century pargeters – anywhere and anyone, basically, who isn’t here and that isn’t now.

Some people turn their noses up at historical fiction. They think it’s either synonymous with bodiceripping romance (it’s not) or just irrelevant. Again, it’s not. These novels give me a connection to roots I didn’t even know I had. They teach me, when I need it most, that we are just a tiny part of humanity’s history and that there is nothing new under the sun. We didn’t start here and – hopefully – we won’t end here. It helps to acknowledge that we have made progress.

We don’t toil from dawn till dusk in fields, tied to our feudal lords and labouring only for them (“No,” says my sister, leaning over my shoulder as I type. “We just give away our data for free to people who control the democracy upon which our relatively new and still fragile freedom depends.” Ignore her. She thrives in the real world and is an unnatural beast.) We don’t usually die aged 20 in childbirth, at 30 of sepsis after a scratch from a rusty nail in the pantry, or at 40 of simple exhaustion.

Life, for almost all of us, is better than it was. People have been at the mercy of madmen before, though they tended to be kings or local barons instead of presidents or Brexiteers. Women and workers have always had to fight for their rights. And have succeeded.

People, as a whole, have survived. Here we are, after all, writing and reading about it.

Some friends cling in times of uncertainty and upset to gory thrillers instead, or psychological whodunits, whose twists, turns and expelled viscera they find a better distraction than medieval farming. Some prefer to go the other way and concentrate on “uplit” – a term coined to describe the plethora and popularity of recent best-selling books like Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie, and The Lido by Libby Page, all uplifting stories about communities, kindness and compassion.

Whatever your escapist poison, what I love about books is that they will provide. Reading remains restorative for us, because people don’t change. Even when the world seems to be in meltdown, we still want to make sense of it, to connect with and draw strength from each other. 

Trust me: between the right covers lie 300 pages worth of salvation for everyone.

Images: Annie Sprat

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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