How I Learned British War History through Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is way more interesting than textbooks.

If it weren’t for historical fiction, I would know very little about history. In school, history was never my strongest subject. I had difficulty sorting all those dates and names, places and events. My mind was like a steel sieve when it came to overlapping timelines.5

Also, it didn’t help that my school’s curriculum changed nearly every year, so that just when I was close to learning about a century — any century — that occurred after the fertile crescent had been left behind, that tantalizing time period was snatched away. Don’t ask me about the Civil War, or even the big World Wars. But if you want to know about the class system of Mesopotamia, I’m your gal.

As an adult, I’ve learned more from historical fiction than I did in all my years in school. For instance, I’ve pieced together some important facts about people and events from the American Revolution thanks to Jamie Fraser and his clan. (It helps that Outlander author Diana Gabaldon pores over historical memoirs and letters for fun.) I’ve discovered more than I ever knew about the depression in Great Britain that came after World War I, not to mention some knowledge of the actual battles, thanks to Maisie Dobbs and her stalwart assistant, Billy Beale.

It occurred to me, recently, that there might be other less-than-stellar history students out there who might also benefit from reading top-notch, entertaining historical fiction, to fill in the gaps left by either a shoddy curriculum or a faulty memory. I put together this timeline of British war history that can be learned from fiction just for you.

Outlander – 1700s

Outlander Book

Outlander

Thanks the the Outlander TV series on Starz, this book series has earned a shining spotlight. What may be lost on TV, however, is the copious amount of information we’re given about life in the 18th Century, first in Scotland and then in the Colonies. I had never known anything about the Second Rising and Culloden before I read Outlander.

Now, I want to walk the field and see the clan stones where so many Scots fell at the hands of the English. I also learn a lot about the run-up to the American Revolution, such as who the key players were and how the issues weren’t all that black and white. And because Claire is a nurse, and later a surgeon, her daily care of her family and friends, and sometimes perfect strangers, gives me a clear (and occasionally stomach-churning) picture of medical practices in the 1700s.

Bess Crawford – World War I

A Duty to the Dead

A Duty to the Dead

Bess Crawford is a British nurse during WWI. Like other heroines at the center of a series of mystery books, she encounters suspicious deaths nearly every time she visits the loo. Usually, her parents and their close family friend, Simon Brandon, discourage her pursuit of the truth, which she ferrets out anyway. Bess Crawford books, written by Charles Todd, are much like Nancy Drew books: you get a taste of characterization and setting, but the focus of the books is tying together the loose ends of the murder mystery. In the meantime, I learn about daily life at the front, which cities in France were key locations for battles, how the class system morphed on the front line, and how England held ground in India.

Maisie Dobbs – Post-World War I

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs also served as a nurse in The Great War, but her background prior to the war makes her an anomaly in post-war London. Impoverished, she was sent into service at a young age, but because of her curiosity and intellect, she was chosen to be privately tutored. Her education transforms her into someone who lives between the classes. After the war, she hangs out her shingle as a private investigator. As you can imagine, she comes up against dismissive attitudes about women, and especially, about a woman from a lower class.

The Maisie Dobbs series, written by Jacqueline Winspear, focuses not just on mysteries, but also on how London and its inhabitants fared after WWI. Scores of soldiers are dealing with shell shock, or what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of soldiers are also coping with physical injuries, and some even with a narcotic addiction, thanks to the painkillers they’re given for those same injuries. As Maisie remembers the war in flashbacks, I learn about life in the trenches, at the Somme, and on the front line. The Maisie Dobbs books also follow the political machinations that lead to World War II. (Be warned, these books are heavy reading, without much levity.)

The Secret Keeper – World War II

The Secret Keeper

The Secret Keeper

The Secret Keeper isn’t part of a book series, like the others on this list. However, I haven’t read a series that takes place during the second World War, so I included this one. The Secret Keeper is about, of course, a murder mystery, but not in the traditional sense.

If you’ve ever read Kate Morton’s books, you know nothing she writes is traditional. The Secret Keeper paints a descriptive picture of a single woman’s daily life in London during WWII: the drills, the blackouts, the rations, the lack of marital prospects. So there isn’t as much of a history lesson here, so much as a cultural lesson. But the book is so, so deliciously good, you’ll thank me for recommending it.

Flavia de Luce – Post-World War II

Flavia de Luce

Flavia de Luce

Do not scoff at my recommending the Flavia de Luce book series when it comes to a historical timeline. Certainly these books, written by Alan Bradley, are more light-hearted than the ones listed above. However, much of the overall story arch focuses on the secret dealings during the war, as well as glimpses into English life just after the war.

Flavia de Luce is a young girl who is a self-taught chemist. As you can imagine, she’s brilliant. Thanks to some neglectful parenting, she spends nearly all her time solving mysteries. Her mother’s demise is shrouded in mystery, as well, and it is that mystery that drives the entire series. Her father and his best friend, Dogger, are veterans, who were also prisoners of war. So all in all, much prose is written about WWII and its aftermath, albeit delightfully lyrical and witty prose.

There you have it, a syllabus full of enjoyable historical fiction that will educate you on major periods of British history.

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