Novels Set Long Ago

There are many dichotomies in novel reading — including books by women or men, books by authors of color or white writers, books that are literary or more mass-market, books that are long or short, books with third-person or first-person narratives, and books set in recent times or long ago.

I was thinking about that last dichotomy when I recently read, back-to-back, Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. Russo’s 2016 novel, an excellent sequel to Nobody’s Fool, takes place in near-contemporary times. Diamant’s absorbing 1997 novel — told from the viewpoint of Dinah (daughter of Jacob/Leah, granddaughter of Isaac/Rebecca, great-granddaughter of Abraham/Sarah) — is set in biblical times thousands of years ago.

This blog post will focus on novels set many centuries in the past, whether written recently or…many centuries in the past. It’s fascinating to get a taste of what life was like long ago — seeing the differences and similarities from the way we live today. And — what do you know! — human emotions were pretty much the same, even as smartphone use was 50% less in ancient times.

Set VERY long ago is Jack London’s Before Adam, in which a man dreams he’s living in the era when apes were evolving into humans. (This was well before U.S. Republican leaders began devolving.) Part of Arthur C. Clarke’s mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey takes place during roughly the same period.

Another far-back novel with a not-quite-so-old milieu is Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked — which unfolds during the time of Christianity’s birth 2,000 years ago. There are of course numerous fictional works featuring or referencing Jesus Christ during the time he lived (if you believe he lived).

Taking place roughly during that same time period is Robert Graves’ I, Claudius — set during the Roman Empire.

Moving ahead several hundred years, we have Mark Twain’s pointed/hilarious A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the 19th-century protagonist travels back to the late-5th/early-6th-century days of Camelot.

Then there’s Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s famous historical novel set in 12th-century England.

Plus The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s intellectual murder mystery that takes place in 14th-century Italy; and The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier’s gripping novel that features time travel back to that 1300s period in England.

The iconic Don Quixote is set in the 1500s, or perhaps the early 1600s — when Miguel de Cervantes wrote it.

And James Clavell’s compelling Shogun takes place in the feudal Japan of 1600.

Speaking of Japan, there’s Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, which takes place about a thousand years ago — and was written by Ms. Shikibu about a thousand years ago! (A scene from that early novel is shown atop this blog post.)

What are some of your favorite novels set many centuries in the past? I realize there are countless titles I didn’t name.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about structural problems in three old schools, the possible reopening of a historic movie theater, and my town’s new congresswoman — is here.

46 thoughts on “Novels Set Long Ago

  1. So, I went on a long diatribe about my problems with my laptop and printer for at least a week, which WordPress then wiped out when I tried to post it. Suffice it to say that I was shocked to learn that I had multiple malware, etc. from the Russians! Bill seems to think I was scammed, but I must say this is the first time I’ve been able to print every time I’ve tried to over this week. I will be monitoring my checking account and other things quite carefully for a while, which I normally do every day anyway.
    As my best friend has to said to me recently is that “Technology 5, Me zero.” I can feel her pain!

    The point of my comment is that I sometimes wish I were born as a gentlewoman a long time ago, not too long but enough where I could spend all of my days reading, walking, playing the pianoforte, handwriting letters and invitations, riding sidesaddle, and visiting all of my neighbors. Of course, the other thing is that I’d probably have been born into poverty, not to mention the hygiene! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • A malware attack — that’s awful, Kat Lit. Very sorry to hear that. So many unscrupulous people are trying to do a number on our digital lives. 😦 Very smart to monitor things closely for a while. The best of luck with nothing else bad happening.


      • Thanks, Dave. I wanted to let you know that my Renaissance CD does have “Ashes are Burning” on it. It just happens to appear on the 2nd CD that I don’t listen to as much as the 1st one. Mystery solved!


  2. Another great post! Thank you. Re: reading novels set long ago, I must say I try to read the Bible at least once a week. Not the whole thing of course–geezaloo, what an endeavor that would be. And yes, it’s certainly up for grabs whether the Bible would be considered a novel or no. Be that as it may, speaking on a personal level, these are my thoughts: let’s say I to go to heaven after I passed (“Sure Jan” ha!), and let’s say I meet Matthew, Mark, Luke et al and they ask me how I liked their book, well I would find it extremely uncomfortable to confess I never read them, and yikes to that when I consider all the books I have read over my lifetime thus far. In addition, I think there will be a much better library upstairs than in the basement. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, SW, for the kind words and serious/droll comment!

      I think the Bible IS a novel in a way — some facts, with a lot of embellishment. Kind of like historical fiction. 🙂

      And, yes, if some Bible “characters” were met in an afterlife, it would be a bit embarrassing not to have read about them.

      Finally, if “upstairs” has a great library, that would be…heavenly. (For believers.)


      • SW and Dave, I think I mentioned in a very recent column about having read the entire Bible, starting in Genesis and all the way through to Revelations. Every night I’d get into bed and read however many chapters I could before falling asleep, which wasn’t that long, especially all the so-and-so begat so-and-so and Leviticus which could be rather boring to say the least. I was reading it from a Study Bible, so I read all the footnotes as well! I don’t think this will get me into heaven (which is something I don’t believe in), but it was just something I wanted to do.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Books of long ago don’t often make it into my reading list (not sure why – it’s not that I’m not interested). However, it’s funny you should bring this up now because I just started reading “the Phantom Tree” that toggles back and forth between the 1550s and the modern age. I’m really enjoying it so far, and it made me think I need to add more “long ago” books to my own list! I will have to look at these ones you mention and give them a go!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      You’re not alone in long-ago books being a small part of your reading list. I read them sporadically myself. The vast majority of novels I get to were published in the 19th century on, with many of those from the 20th and 21st centuries.

      Time-travel novels, such as the interesting one you described, are kind of a compromise — many of them incorporating the present and the distant past in one book. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so glad you liked ‘Everybody’s Fool,’ Dave. The book that comes to mind for me is Ken Follett’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’ set in the 12th century about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. It is a long book but I couldn’t put it down. I have not read the sequels, nor watched the mini-series.

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  5. Anything by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks takes me back in time, and her ability to capture voices and the culture of long ago times is amazing. I read her book, The Secret Chord, about King David in the Old Testament, and Brooks fleshes out his relationships in such compelling fashion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Suzette!

      I did love Geraldine Brooks’ “March” — the “Little Women”-related novel you recommended to me that went back a “mere” 150 or so years (to America’s Civil War). “The Secret Chord” sounds terrific, too!


    • Thank you, whatcathyreadnext! That’s plenty far back. 🙂

      Iceland is a country that intrigues me a lot (I’ve been in Reykjavik, but only for a connection at the airport) — and 10th-century Iceland sounds just as intriguing in a different way.


  6. Love these books, Dave! Since you brought up Mark Twain, another of his historical books is “Joan of Arc,” a sort of novelized version of her life. I enjoyed it tremendously as a teenager despite the inevitably sad end.

    “The Red Tent,” which I also really enjoyed, reminds me of Madeline L’engle’s “Many Waters.” Sandy and Dennis, the twin brothers of Meg, the heroine of “A Wrinkle in Time,” are thrown back into the period just before the Biblical Flood and end up living with Noah’s family. It’s from their point of view but is among other things about the fact that according to the story, there was no room on the Arc for a lot of the women of the family.

    And then in “An Acceptable Time,” Polly, Meg’s daughter, also goes back in time to a prehistoric period. Actually, the whole “Wrinkle in Time” trilogy is about time travel as well, and there’s a fair amount of travel to the past in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great mention, Elena! I agree — the 1400s-set “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” is a REALLY good historical novel. I’ve read that it was Mark Twain’s favorite work he wrote, which is saying something.

      The other two books in the “A Wrinkle in Time” trilogy sound tremendous. I didn’t know there was a trilogy! “Many Waters” sounds especially intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Howdy, Dave!

    — What are some of your favorite novels set many centuries in the past? —

    As I await the appearance of the rosy fingers of dawn while lapping up my early-morning bucket of coffee here at the Cabin in the Sky today, I am acutely aware that neither Homer’s “The Iliad” nor his “The Odyssey” is a novel, but, hey, each most likely would have been rendered in that literary form had it been invented all those years ago. (If I had a J.J.ic Answer to the Homeric Question, then I could be a bit more specific about the timeline. But I don’t. So I can’t. Let’s say both classic epic poems about the Trojan War were composed about 2,700 years ago and call it good.)

    In any case, I believe Robert Fitzgerald hit a couple of Homers with his translations of these suckers . . .

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, J.J.!

      “I believe Robert Fitzgerald hit a couple of Homers with his translations of these suckers…” — LOL! 🙂

      Glad you mentioned “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” I thought of including them — long-ago epic poems were definitely pre-novels in a way, as you alluded to — but I’ve still yet to read them. Though it now occurs to me that I did read “The Penelopiad,” which is Margaret Atwood’s take on “The Odyssey” from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope.


      • — Glad you mentioned “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” I thought of including them . . . but I’ve still yet to read them. —

        Keep your eyes peeled for those rosy fingers of dawn! (Of course, both Homer and Bart — I mean, Fitzgerald — capitalize the “D” in “Dawn,” but we postmodern types seldom employ personification when discussing the parts of the day.)

        — [I]t now occurs to me that I did read “The Penelopiad,” which is Margaret Atwood’s take on “The Odyssey” from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope. —

        Well, Offred and Penny certainly do have a lot in common, given all the grody-to-the-max guys with whom they have to contend on a daily basis, so I can see Margaret Atwood skillfully slinging the arrows of outrageous fortune in “The Penelopiad,” which I will have to add to my Life List.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dave and JJ: I was also thinking about the Homeric works especially those translated by Fitzgerald. I was very happy to attend many classes in Greek and Roman history/culture in my college days, and most of them included Sophocles “The Theban Trilogy” which included Oedipus Rex (also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King), Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Electra is the main character in two Greek tragedies, Electra by Sophocles and Electra by Euripides, as well as Lysistrata by Sophocles. Right now I’m blanking on any Roman plays, and I most often read something that was non-fiction by Cicero and Suetonius. I did actually take a class in Ancient Greek for one year and still have my textbook, as though I thought I’d someday re-learn what I knew back then! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Quite a reading background there, Kat Lit! I’m not sure why, but I never took a course that included ancient Greek or ancient Roman writings, and only read a bit on my own. A large gap in my reading history.


        • Howdy, Kat Lit!

          — I was also thinking about the Homeric works especially those translated by Fitzgerald. I was very happy to attend many classes in Greek and Roman history/culture in my college days —

          I have read many of the ancient Greek classics, but I have read none of the ancient Roman classics. However, I am determined to get to Virgil’s “The Aeneid” one of these decades. (Glancing at the first line of John Dryden’s translation of Virg’s epic poem at the Internet Classics Archive just now, I see where George Bernard Shaw got the inspiration for the title of his “Arms and the Man.” Live and learn!)

          Meanwhile, I have read Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” — a hoot and a half — but I have not even heard of a Sophocles play of the same name, so I will have to research that baby.


          Liked by 2 people

          • J.J,, I think there was a version of this play from Sophocles, though the one by Euripides is well more known. I had forgotten about Virgil’s “The Aeneid” so thanks for that reminder! Another book I forgot about was Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” from all the myths which is still fascinating to me today.

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  8. My favorite novel set long ago was “The Robe” by Lloyd C. Douglas, which had to do with the crucifixion of Jesus. I was quite young when I read it; in fact it was probably my first very long novel I read, and I loved it. What I didn’t know at the time was that a department store clerk wrote Douglas asking him what he thought happened to the garments Jesus wore that day, which inspired him to write this book. He sent the clerk a chapter whenever he finished writing it, and he finally met her in 1941 (thank you Wikipedia!). There was also a movie that was released in 1953, featuring Richard Burton, but I can’t recall if I ever saw it. I do remember seeing other movies set in that time period, “Spartacus,” and “Ben-Hur” come to mind. The latter was a novel, but I can’t remember about “Spartacus.”

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  9. My favorite retelling of the Arthurian legend is T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King” — partly because the book is the basis for the musical “Camelot.” It was also used for the Disney feature, “The Sword in the Stone.” Another retelling of those legends is “The Mists of Avalon” which gives the story a different twist by featuring the women in the legend is a totally different way. Your mention of the du Maurier book reminds me that is one book I MUST read!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, two more Camelot-era books. Thank you, Susan! I know you’ve mentioned those books before — they sound great! “The Once and Future King” certainly inspired a VERY famous musical.

      Daphne du Maurier’s “The House on the Strand” IS quite a novel!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Susan, Elena and Dave, I thought I’d answered this comment before, but apparently WordPress has decided otherwise (or it may just be me!). I always wanted to read “The Once and Future King,” I’d picked up a book about a British woman who bought a small farm in Wales, and she had named her dog (a whippet) Merlin. She’d read that novel many times. I couldn’t get into it for some reason, but I want to try again. I do have a lot of DVDs about Camelot, such as “A Sword in the Stone,” “Camelot,” “King Arthur,” “The Mists of Avalon,” “Excalibur,” and “Merlin,” I’m fascinated by that whole story/legend. For a while, I was not happy that I read “Idylls of the King,” which was an assignment in high school twice because of moving. The second time I did, my English teacher called me into her class after reading it, and apparently was too learned to believe I did it on my own. So, she was ready to give me an “F,” and I had to explain that I did refer to my class “notes” from the year before. She told me that I had to footnote everything I had learned from previous classes, which made me think that I’d have to footnote “Run Spot run.” for every paper I wrote from that day on. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Camelot IS a fascinating story/legend, Kat Lit, and it sounds like you’re a VERY well-read/well-watched expert on that topic. But I must admit my favorite take on Camelot is “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — which I think is one of the cleverest/most-hilarious movies ever.

          Thoroughly enjoyed your funny/frustrating remembrance of that “Idylls of the King” assignment. 🙂


          • Well, I did read a synopsis of many Arthurian legends, though I did miss out on the Monty Python one, though I’ve seen clips from it and were very funny! I also was happy to see “Young Frankenstein” on Broadway which was hilarious!

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            • I’ve seen the “Young Frankenstein” movie, and thought it was tremendous. Some stories are so great that they can be treated seriously or comedically. (Mary Shelley’s iconic “Frankenstein” novel was certainly not a laughfest.)


              • That’s definitely true, Dave, but there’s something about those movies made by Monty Python that are really funny. Though I do think there’s something about them that appeals to men rather than women just like the Three Stooges. Do you find that true, or is it a gender thing? I’d be interested in your response, though there’s absolutely nothing to do with literature at all!. This has been a question that has puzzled me for years, I’m not sure why, but there you go…

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                • Excellent question, Kat Lit. I agree that there are some gender differences in the kind of comedy people like — definitely more male than female Three Stooges fans, and probably more male than female Monty Python fans — but with less of a gap in the latter case. That said, I’m personally a big fan of many female humorists — whether they are stand-up comics, novelists, etc. For instance, I find writers such as Liane Moriarty, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood VERY funny when they want to be in their novels.


                  • One thing making The Three Stooges and Monty Python more of a male draw is of course both of those comedy groups being all-male, with females in mostly bit roles. And The Three Stooges’ comedy is basically physical — little subtlety or nuance.


      • Thank you, Elena!

        I happened to see the Bing Crosby “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” movie before reading the novel (rare for me), and was struck by how much more satirical and antiwar the book was. The film definitely sanitized things.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks to Kathy Eliscu for recommending “The Red Tent” and to Mary Mackeith, Sharon Terrel McAlister, and Molly Stevens for recommending Richard Russo and “Everybody’s Fool”!


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