Historical television dramas always have their fans (me included) and the selection has greatly increased in recent years, along with their scale and sophistication. One can cringe at the anachronisms or outright mistakes in the historical details in a series like Downton Abbey or Mad Men without liking the series any less, because we know that they are used to help move the fictional plot. But what I like even more is when the fiction creates an appetite to explore the real history behind it, and just because history is in the non-fiction category, does not mean it doesn’t have plenty of drama.
Regardless of what your chosen historical period might be, we’ve got suggestions for you!
Antiquity and the Middle Ages
You watched Rome and learned of pre-Christian mores and the never-ending political intrigues of a great empire, or you watched the series Vikings about an ambitious raider’s first foray into 8th-century Britain.
Ancient Rome : from Romulus to Justinian by Thomas R. Martin is a quick and accessible overview of the Roman civilization from its humble beginnings to the barbarian invasions and its downfall.
Author Robert Ferguson does something similar in The Vikings : a history with more emphasis on archeological discoveries to compensate the paucity of written records and how deeply they left their influence on the same cultures they raided.
The Borgias or the Tudors series are your fares. You enjoy costume dramas with their mixture of political, religious and interpersonal power games… but those series have taken many liberties as far as historical accuracy goes.
If you are interested in the real deal, The Tudors: the complete story of England’s most notorious dynasty and The Borgias: the hidden history, both by widely acclaimed historian G.J. Meyer, will give you a more accurate and complete picture of what it was like to survive as power brokers of the Renaissance era.
You’re a fan of police procedurals like Ripper Street or Murdoch Mysteries, and may have dabbled with Deadwood, series that pits men dedicated to science and order against a chaotic and uncivilized world.
The invention of murder : how the Victorians revelled in
death and detection and created modern crime by Judith Flander will satisfy anyone interested in the early efforts to create an organized and professional police force that would tackle “modern criminality” with the help of early scientific methods. At the same time as mass media was giving unprecedented coverage and visibility to the criminal element of Victorian society, it saw death being used as mass entertainment (as long as it was distant enough).”Penny dreadfuls”, saw the birth of detective fiction that has lost none of its appeal to this day.
The floor of heaven : a true tale of the last frontier and the Yukon gold rush by Howard Blum is a recent arrival that tells the story of three very different ex-cowboys who had to re-invent themselves and became prospectors searching for the promise of riches in the last wild frontier of northern Canada. Recommended for those who wants plenty of action in their reads.
Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey was written by the present Countess of Carnarvon, and owner of Highclere Castle (where most of the show takes place), and chronicles the lives of Catherine and Henry Carnarvon in Edwardian England. Using primary sources, the book not only highlights the lives of the rich and famous, but also the staff that works for them, just like in the show.
On the other side of the pond, Last call: the rise and fall of Prohibition, 1920-1933 by Daniel Okrent chronicles the “Noble Experiment” that started with the Volstead Act which established prohibition in the United States and the rise of organized crime that resulted from it. This is a great and detailed read about the importance of alcohol had in American culture and history, the reasons and forces that pushed for prohibition and the roots that help explain its ultimate failure.
Call the Midwife has the merit of being based on the real-life memoirs of Jennifer Worth’s experiences as a midwife in London’s East End in the 1950’s, which is available at the library in addition to the TV series.
If you are more interested in what really transpired in New York’s ad agencies, try The real mad men : the renegades of Madison Avenue and the golden age of advertising by John Hegarty and learn how the period saw a revolution in the business and art of consumer advertising.
If you want more examples of good non-fiction related to your favourite historical drama, please make sure to take a look at our book display on the subject, located on the 4th floor of the Millennium Library.