Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway

11 Fascinating Novels About Real-Life People


There aren’t many things better than historical fiction, in which authors tackle history from a fictional character’s perspective. One of those few better things? Historical fiction from the perspective of real-life people. These books take on wildly different figures of varying degrees of fame and sympathy, but all share a commitment to bringing a world alive in all its detail and complication. 


  1. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain


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From his classic novels to his enduring image as a cigar chomping manly man, Ernest Hemingway has long lived in the popular imagination. His first wife, Hadley Richardson, has not. McLain attempts to correct that oversight with this novel, embodying Hadley’s voice to tell the story of the pair’s unlikely romance and eventual breakup amid the American expatriate scene in 1920’s Paris.  


  1. Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel


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Mantel upped the historical fiction ante with this 2009 novel about Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII and schemer extraordinaire. Mantel knows her stuff, making an already explosive story vividly alive—and ripe for adaptation. If you like this one, there are two more after!


  1. Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer


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George Mallory made history as a member of the first British Expedition up Mount Everest, but he died on the mountain on 1924. From this somber fact, Archer expertly weaves a portrait of Mallory’s risky ambition as well as the friends and family who surround him—particularly Ruth, the wife he left behind.


  1. The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman


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Camille Pisarro was a Danish-French artist well-regarded for his Impressionist works. Much less well known, however, is his mother Rachel, a charismatic woman forced into marriage and early widowhood in a small Caribbean Jewish community who ultimately chooses to live her own life—the community’s judgment be damned.


  1. Burr by Gore Vidal


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Aaron Burr, the killer of Alexander Hamilton and a schemer who actually tried to form his own country in the expanse of the Louisiana Purchase, has earned a place in American history as one of our greatest villains. But Vidal, in his wisdom, dares to imagine Burr not as a greedy monster but as a flawed and complicated man made, in part, by the violent new cnation he calls home.


  1. Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips


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Bert Williams was one of America’s greatest performers, a pioneer who forged a path for African Americans working in the entertainment industry. He was also a black man confined to crude blackface comedy, a victim of ignorance who died full of sorrow and regret. Phillips covers all angles of Williams’ storied life, from his friendships to his romances and stage roles, never straying far from the mounting cost of misrepresentation for black entertainers of the early twentieth century.


  1. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd


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In this eventful novel, Kidd turns her attention to the Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah—the real-life daughters of slaveholders who would grow up to be abolitionists—as well as Hetty “Handful”, a slave who grows up with the girls. But where the real Hetty died young of a beating and subsequent illness, Kidd’s Hetty gets to grow older and wiser, eventually coming in to her own just like her more privileged counterparts.


  1. Arthur and George by Julian Barnes


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The “Arthur” of the title is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, while “George” is the less famous but just as real George Edaji, a Parsi-English lawyer unjustly convicted of committing animal cruelty. Barnes follows both of their lives closely, building up to the point when their narratives will converge and make history. Barnes deserves credit for reviving this obscure story for a modern audience.


  1. Empress by Shan Sa


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Empress Wu was one of only a handful of women to rule Imperial China, and she did so with great taste and skill. Still, her story is known to precious few—a state of affairs that Empress tries to remedy. Sa stays with Wu from her humble origins as an emperor’s concubine to the first wife position and, eventually, head of all China.


  1. Loving Frank by Nancy Horan


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If you know anything at all about architecture, than you’ve probably heard the name Frank Lloyd Wright. For many, Wright was the face of American architecture, desigining hundreds of structures over his 91-year life. But Frank didn’t just spend all his time at the drafting table. Case in point: his passionate affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a married woman who would soon die a grisly death at the hands of a servant in the seeming safety of Wright’s estate. But before the sorrow comes, we come to see Mamah not as a mistress, but as a person—making the ending all the more devastating.


Featured Image Courtesy of NPR.