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19th Century Historical Fiction: 14 Books Set in the 1800s

19th Century Historical Fiction: 14 Books Set in the 1800s

The 19th century is one of the most intriguing eras portrayed in today’s historical fiction. Close enough to feel relatable but all the more transportative for being out of reach, well-documented enough to be thoroughly researched but with sufficient unknowns to be open to interpretation, it includes significant events whose effects still linger, and complex social atmospheres that exist outside of our own experience. Below is a list that showcases a variety of excellent 19th-century historical novels published in recent years. A couple feature early Chinese American narratives. Some both adhere to and subvert conventions of the popular Western genre. Several are written from a Black American perspective, covering both slavery and Reconstruction. Other books take place outside of the United States, in settings such as Scotland, England and Norway. 

We hope you enjoy these titles, which all come highly recommended from our reviewers. And if you’re on the hunt for more 1800s books, be sure to check out our full category of 300+ recommended titles set in the 19th century, which includes both fiction and nonfiction and is continually growing. BookBrowse members can access all filters and categories, while non-members have limited access.

Clear

Clear: A Novel
by Carys Davies


Hardcover Apr 2024. 208 pages
Published by Scribner

Ivar has lived alone for decades; the Highland Clearances, a series of mass evictions that began a century earlier, have already forced his family from the land. But if Scottish history would have him for another victim, Clear deftly upends the usual narrative. Soon after arrival, John slips on the craggy coastline; Ivar, discovering his unconscious body, takes it upon himself to patch the minister up. Clear's chapters, each a brief, poetic vignette, are lessons in what can be achieved with spare, finely-wrought sentences. Davies is a writer with a painter's sensibility. Like the best landscape paintings, her scenes are precise in their detail and expansive in their scope; and like the best landscape painters, she has a rare sensitivity to the natural world. (Alex Russell) 

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James

James: A Novel
by Percival Everett


Hardcover Mar 2024. 320 pages
Published by Doubleday

The Oscar-nominated film American Fiction (2023) and the Percival Everett novel it was based on, Erasure (2001), are about whose voices are heard and in what context. In James, Everett brings readers the voice of Jim, the enslaved companion of Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain's 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Jim's voice, along with the voices of the other enslaved people he knows and meets on his journey, is one of constant code switching. Slavery's violence is unflinchingly captured in all of its horror, but also in its absurdity. Like the author supposedly standing up for Black voices in American Fiction, there are white savior types in James held up for satirical ridicule. It features some excellent surprises and the build up to and execution of the final act are expertly done. (Lisa Butts) 

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Flight of the Wild Swan

Flight of the Wild Swan
by Melissa Pritchard


Paperback Mar 2024. 416 pages
Published by Bellevue Literary Press

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), known variously as the "Lady with the Lamp" or the "Ministering Angel" of the Crimean War (1853–1856), elevated the role of nursing into a profession—especially for women—in an era that had previously regarded female nurses with disdain. Relying on Nightingale's copious letters and journals and other documentary evidence, Melissa Pritchard's dazzling historical novel Flight of the Wild Swan brings this complex and idiosyncratic woman to exquisite life. (Peggy Kurkowski) 

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The New Life

The New Life: A Novel
by Tom Crewe


Paperback Jan 2024. 416 pages
Published by Scribner

The protagonists of The New Life are based on two real-life figures — John Addington Symond and Havelock Ellis — who co-wrote a historical-scientific text called Sexual Inversion, just like in the novel. However, as Crewe mentions in his afterword, he fictionalized these figures through his characterization of their interactions. In reality, the two never met, communicating exclusively through mail, and Symond died before the book was published, whereas in The New Life, John Addington is very able to fight back against the injustice of his work being censored. The characters of The New Life are all painfully real — they make selfish, rash choices, regardless of how their decisions may hurt those who love them. Despite those more negative qualities, many of them are fiercely lovable. (Maria Katsulos) 

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Let Us Descend

Let Us Descend: A Novel
by Jesmyn Ward


Paperback Sep 3, 2024. 320 pages
Published by Scribner

By default, slavery offers its horrors as a tension. Annis's overwhelming grief as she loses people close to her is also a relatively expected narrative layer. Mama Aza's mystical, sometimes sinister presence is a fascinating, unexpected tension that complements Annis's experiences very well. But these tensions are not the only moving pieces of the plot as it unfolds: Ward's novel is also a coming-of-age story. Alongside the bleak reality of her life, readers grow up with Annis, hearing her interests and her desire for freedom, seeing how what freedom means to her evolves. (Lisa Ahima) 

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Fire Season

Fire Season: A Novel
by Leyna Krow


Paperback Jul 2023. 336 pages
Published by Penguin Books

Fire Season is a thoroughly enjoyable novel that touches upon multiple genres and themes. It initially presents itself as historical fiction, but then weaves in supernatural elements tied to feminist power. The exciting backdrop of the late 19th century Wild West as the territory of Washington is on the verge of becoming a state establishes the paradoxical foundation of America as a place of opportunity for independence, but with restrictions on that freedom for some. The novel takes the reader into the characters' internal turmoil, exploring themes first from traditional masculine perspectives and then revealing hidden individual and feminist meanings. (Jennifer Hon Khalaf) 

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My Fine Fellow

My Fine Fellow
by Jennieke Cohen


Paperback Jan 2023. 352 pages
Published by HarperCollins Children's Books

My Fine Fellow will absolutely be enjoyed by readers whether or not they've seen the Lerner and Loewe musical by which it's inspired; certainly fans of My Fair Lady will appreciate spotting the references Cohen cleverly sprinkles into her prose, but they're hardly essential. More at the heart of the novel is a celebration of food and cooking, and of the ways in which food can connect us to our personal heritage and also open up the whole world. Fans of The Great British Bake Off or similar cooking competition shows will find much to love here. (Norah Piehl) 

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Yonder

Yonder: A Novel
by Jabari Asim


Paperback Jan 2023. 272 pages
Published by Simon & Schuster

In many ways, Yonder is a place we have been in literature before, but Asim adds several new twists. For one, Placid Hall is a place where skilled laborers live — all slaves weren't of the fields. The author also creates names for the categories of captive and owner: Stolen and Thief. Chapter after chapter, Asim confronts a suppressed history that is still being marginalized. Rituals. Whippings. Horrors. Hate. Brotherhood. Lust. His prose returns humanity to stolen people as he writes of how the slaves at Placid Hall crave love, acceptance, friendship and caring, evoking what bell hooks meant when she wrote, "Love is an action, never simply a feeling." (Valerie Morales) 

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The Bell in the Lake

The Bell in the Lake: Sister Bells Trilogy #1
by Lars Mytting


Paperback Sep 2022. 416 pages
Published by The Overlook Press

Mytting constructs his novel around compelling dichotomies. Cutting-edge medical procedures versus limited village practices, Christianity versus superstition and male action versus female passivity are pairs of concepts the author gently dissects and subverts. In atmosphere, The Bell in the Lake is reminiscent of Danish author Carsten Jensen's We, the Drowned, another enthralling epic that combines history and legend in an inviting Scandinavian setting. (Rebecca Foster) 

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Four Treasures of the Sky

Four Treasures of the Sky: A Novel
by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

Hardcover Apr 2022. 336 pages
Published by Flatiron Books

Zhang depicts Daiyu's time in a San Francisco brothel delicately but forcefully — exactly as Daiyu wields her calligraphy brush. The stories of the young women among whom she lives and works are heartbreaking, and Zhang delivers feelings of real tension and urgency as Daiyu plans her escape. Despite hardship unimaginable to many, the times when Daiyu finds genuine joy in Four Treasures of the Sky filled me with happiness. Her love of storytelling may be the best example of this joy, discovered even in a life marked by tragedy. A deep love of and respect for words is something Zhang shares with her heroine: They are both incredibly gifted wordsmiths who use their multilingualism to craft stories unconstrained by just one language. (Maria Katsulos) 

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Outlawed

Outlawed
by Anna North


Paperback Feb 2022. 272 pages
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing

Outlawed manages not only to flip the script on the masculine hero outlaw archetype, but to do so with biting wit and real purpose. North considers the role of a woman, especially in the world of the Wild West: Her place at the heart of dangerous superstitions, devised by men for maintaining a status quo of which they are afraid to lose control. Her role as a machine for making men happy and producing offspring. The Hole in the Wall Gang represents freedom from that machine life and its dangers, and provides new, more exciting dangers of its own. (Will Heath) 

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How Much of These Hills Is Gold

How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A Novel
by C Pam Zhang


Paperback Apr 2021. 336 pages
Published by Riverhead Books

Twelve-year-old Lucy and 11-year-old Sam have been left to fend for themselves in a mining town, presumably in the 19th-century American West, by their abusive father, who has drunk himself to death. After finding their parent's lifeless body, the children attempt to secure a loan of two silver dollars, not to buy food or other necessities, but to cover his eyes in keeping with what they have been taught constitutes a proper burial. No one will lend them the coins, and when the town banker hurls a racial slur in their direction, Sam commits a retaliatory act of violence, after which the siblings take to the surrounding hills with Nellie, a horse stolen from the local schoolteacher, and their father's corpse packed into a trunk. Zhang's prose employs a direct physicality that evokes the immediacy of childhood. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is raw, elemental and irreplaceable, something singular and essential. Zhang's novel is a landmark debut that doesn't just fill gaps in the historical fiction genre, but subverts it, calling attention to the very limitations of colonial recorded history. (Elisabeth Cook) 

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Conjure Women

Conjure Women
by Afia Atakora


Paperback Apr 2021. 416 pages
Published by Random House

Conjure Women is a novel rooted as much in its place as its people. It is steeped in natural imagery, linking (in ways as complicated as the history of black people in the Americas) those enslaved, and later dispossessed people, to the places they inhabit. These spaces are treacherous, barren and haunted, yet they are also restorative and transformational. These dichotomies are one of the hallmarks of the book, creating a kind of undulating suspense and release, hope and loss, elation and melancholy that ultimately reaffirms what the characters in the novel have always known: despite their magic, this life and this work could never have a fairy tale ending. (Debbie Morrison) 

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Marley

Marley
by Jon Clinch


Paperback Nov 2020. 304 pages
Published by Washington Square Press

In Marley, Clinch has identified another classic character worth re-examining: the penitent, chain-rattling spectre of Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge's deceased business partner, from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Clinch expertly cultivates Marley's character, elaborating the origins of one of English literature's most famous misers with forensic precision. Like the best of Dickens, Marley works well as populist entertainment and layered social commentary. (Mark Anthony Ayling) 

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I am new to the book browse newsletters and have just received the list of historical fiction titles. I have not read any of the books to comment upon but I will say that all of the authors are new to me and quite a few of the titles piqued my interest. The timing of this list is perfect as day by day we move closer to summer. Kudos and gratitude to the book brow staff for such an enticing collection of titles for readers to consider.
# Posted By Sunny | 5/31/24 10:20 AM
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