Sally Bedell Smith’s Favorite Books

As all eyes focus on Queen Elizabeth II, who just turned 91 years old and is the subject of Netflix’s hot new show The Crown, prominent biographer Sally Bedell Smith released a new book on the queen’s son, Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life.  

Full of fun, shocking tidbits along with a comprehensive overview of the life of an aging prince now on the cusp of becoming king, Smith takes Prince Charles out of the shadow of his mother and shines the spotlight on his accomplishments and pitfalls with a sympathetic touch.

We celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s birthday on April 21 by sitting down with Smith for a #ScribdChat to discuss her new book and the trials and tribulations of Prince Charles’ life. Smith has also written biographies on the Queen and the late Princess Diana, making her one of the go-to resources on all things royalty.

As we discussed what makes Prince Charles a great leader, we also wondered what it took to write a 500-plus page biography. So we asked Smith: When she’s not reading for background on her next biography, what does she like to read for fun? Where does her interest in subjects out of their time come from? 

“I read lots of novels, particularly when I’m writing,” she said. “I find reading novels, just immersing myself in good words and great characters and great stories, is helpful to me.” 

Here are some of her favorite books:

The Custom of the Country

Smith said that, while working on her biography on Pamela Harriman, she had the heroine of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country in her head throughout the writing process. Smith considers this Wharton’s best book, and comes back to it time and again. The story follows Undine Spragg as she tries to climb the social ladder into New York’s high society.

Also available as an audiobook.

Wolf Hall

It’s easy to see the appeal of Mantel’s Man Booker Prize–winning novel for a royal biographer like Smith — it’s historical fiction that focuses on Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Cromwell. Instead of making King Henry VIII the primary subject, Mantel makes Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, the star of this reimagining. A stunning take on the creation of the Church of England. 

Theodore Rex

In addition to royal biographies, Smith has written about the Kennedys, the Clintons, and other American political figures as well. It’s no wonder she admires the writing of British-American biographer Edmund Morris, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the first part of his biography on President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Light Years

The Light Years is the first book of the Cazalet Chronicles, a series of novels following the Cazalet family as they cope with the aftermath of World War I and brace for World War II. It’s a sweeping, multigenerational family saga, not unlike Smith’s own writings about Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and Charles’ sons, Princes William and Harry.

The Mapping of Love and Death

Smith confided that she loves Jacqueline Winspear’s historical mystery series, Maisie Dobbs. In this installment, Dobbs must figure out who killed a cartographer on the battlefield during the first world war, after evidence shows it wasn’t from a shell blast. Winspear pays particular attention to the tensions of the time period between the two world wars.


From the award-winning author of Atonement comes a novel grappling with the ideas of fate, and how to find balance between science and art, as the world becomes preoccupied and fearful of terrorism. There’s a subtle darkness that runs through the novel, slowly building to an explosive climax.

A Sport and a Pastime

Tender yet fierce, erotic yet idyllic, Salter's masterful love story reads with the passionate urgency of a fever dream. A Sport and a Pastime follows a college dropout as he travels 1960s Europe and has an affair with a French girl. Salter has been lauded as one of the greatest American novelists of all time.

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