Opinion pieces

We have collected various opinions from staff who work in the IHR about what historical fiction means to them. What is their favourite historical novel and why? How do they view fictional writings when researching the past?

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This entry was posted in Opinion pieces by Matt Phillpott. Bookmark the permalink.

About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.

4 thoughts on “Opinion pieces

  1. As a child I spent most of my summers in our local recreation program and a large part of that program was getting to use the library every day. With five children to care for, my mother wasn’t always able to take us to the local library; we lived in the rural farmland, the library was in the city. Unfortunately, the Bookmobile rarely seemed to carry the kinds of books they would allow me to check out. So I lived for the days I could go to the main library and sneak out of the children’s section to find more meatier books. This is when I discovered the likes of Anya Seton’s KATHERINE and Anna Marie Selenko’s DESIREE, and I was hooked.

    Though, like others, I can’t name a single favorite title from all those I have since read, but I can name an author, Barbara Erskine. I read LADY OF HAY and I was hooked on her double storyline where the history of the past was interwoven with the fictional present and I have loved that formula since, including her current TIME’S LEGACY. However, if I had to chose a single title of her books, my all time favorite is CHILD OF THE PHOENIX, which spanned the life of a single female protagonist (probably the composite of two historical women) as she moved through the late 12th and early 13th century history of Wales, England and finally to the Scotland of Alexander III. This book sparked my lifelong interest in Scottish history with its inter-connection to the history of the British Isles. Now I enjoy the books of Stephen Lawhead, Elizabeth Chadwick, Diana Gabaldon and Robyn Young and many more.

    In large part reading historical fiction has allowed me to look at history through the lives of real historical personas, rather than just events and dates typical to the way history is taught in the US. My early reading of historical fiction has influenced my love of history as I have since earned a BA in history, completed a distance learning undergraduate program in Medieval/Early Modern Scottish History and postgraduate studies in Local and Family History studies, both from the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am currently preparing to apply to graduate school at Dundee in Scottish Studies, and while researching history for my own historical fiction, I do historical research and fact checking historical content for historical and historical romance authors.

  2. Susan Beaumont, University of Newcastle
    My favourite Historical Novel: Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek
    For historical escapism at its best, Frenchman’s Creek (first published in 1941) is hard to beat. It exists outside of time.
    Dona, Lady St. Colomb, is trapped in a respectable marriage, a bored and impetuous wife with two small children. Escaping the shallow social world of Restoration London, she courts danger in the undisciplined beauty of the rugged Cornish coast, the haunt of an infamous French pirate. Jean-Benoit Aubery is not a typical pirate, however. He is equally daring and impulsive, a wanderer and a philosopher in his restless quest for a kindred spirit. Midsummer allows Dona and Jean, awkwardly at first, to share a few life-affirming experiences (fishing, making a fire, steering the ship) and, at the same time, to explore the implications of their tempestuous personalities in the context of social and familial responsibility. United by the spirit of adventure, they plan a daring assault upon the societal and familial forces which bind them, in which the changing of gender identities provides the risk and the solution. It’s a theme which resonates throughout history and which provides historical fiction with an almost-inexhaustible supply of characters and plots.
    In the short preface to the novel, Julie Myerson describes how this story changed the way she thought about herself. I read Frenchman’s Creek at a similar age, the age at which devouring the contents of the local Library was de rigeur for students of English Literature and aspiring novelists. Du Maurier’s romantic fiction presented the imaginative possibilities of historical times and places yet unknown to me in a perfected form. The novel also offered me a literary perspective on the complexities to be expected of personality and romantic love.
    Frenchman’s Creek remains entertaining on the simplest level, as sheer escapism, but it also works particularly successfully as a book with understated psychological insight. The protagonists operate on the margins of their respective societies, where passion and impetuosity intimate the secret pursuit of codes of meaning which apply to life itself. At the same time, Dona, particularly, is conscious of the boundaries of the passionate relationship she has found (Jean is less developed in this respect). A conventional ending would have seen them sail away into the sunset. Instead, du Maurier presents an ambiguous ending which reinforces the credibility of the interrelationships between their complex emotions, and the differences between the male’s and the female’s realities in such circumstances. Du Maurier hints that passionate affairs sometimes do have the capacity to result in a renewed commitment to an alternative (moral) truth.
    Frenchman’s Creek may be seen as a re-working of an ancient allegory of courtly love. But it also prefigures a modern mythology in which married women agonise about escaping domestic commitments and finding themselves. It is a novel about emotions and about ideas. The period detail is conventional but unobtrusive, also beguiling and seemingly effortless. Historical fiction can capture and reconfigure such fragments of time. They are the perfect medium for exploring the depth and numinacy of complex, and often fleeting, emotions. Such fiction can have a hypnotic effect. We learn that empathy exists unconfined in a time-frame, and is indeed a very real possibility, if even for a short time.
    It is the accuracy of the emotions portrayed which is timeless.
    (23 November 2011)

  3. I am delighted to win the prize for my book review; thank you IHR for my first ‘published’ work. I hope to be able to write something rather longer sometime soon.


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