Competition time!

By now you will have seen a few opinion pieces posted here by staff members of the IHR. We asked them to tell us about their favourite historical novel but gave them quite a bit of latitude in how they approached that topic. I think you’ll agree that the pieces already posted offer quite a varied response to the question.  More will follow in the next few days.

As we had fun writing these short pieces ourselves we thought it would be a good idea to turn this into a competition. Therefore, we are offering several prizes for the best opinion piece about your favourite historical novel (Why? And, if applicable, how this has influenced your thoughts on academic history?).

Please post your entries on the comment facility on the Opinions page.

On Friday we will announce the winners.

Prizes on offer:


  • For your post to be included you must have registered for our conference. If you have not already done so you may do so in the left-hand column.
  • You must log in to the blog (either through WordPress, Facebook or Twitter.  Alternatively you may use the ‘guest’ option but leave your name and email address for us to be able to contact you (your email address will not be published or used for any other purpose).
  • Staff members of the IHR and their families cannot take part in the competition.
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.

2 thoughts on “Competition time!


    It depends on what you think historical fiction is, what it is for. A romantic fantasy,
    or a serious attempt to understand something about the past?

    We do not know, and never will know what was said between Cromwell
    and Wolsey, or Wriothesley (Call-me-Risley), or Anne Boleyn, or the
    king. In the period I am working on, summer 1483, there are two whole weeks
    for which it seems we have nothing at all in the historical account, during a major crisis.

    But we can use our imagination, and we can deduce certain things from the evidence we
    do have. We can propose and depict what seems most plausible to us, based on our
    understanding of the fragments we do have. We cannot write the truth, because we do not
    know what it is, but we can try to create something which has the scent of
    truth about it, which sounds and feels as if it may be somewhere close to the nature of
    things as they were, as they may very well have been.

    And if we can do that with the 1530’s or the 1480’s, if we can become familiar
    with the scent of the truth in the time of Cromwell, or Gloucester, then we
    may be able to use that familiarity to help us recognise it in our own time.

    To some people the attempt to “fill in the gaps in the sparsely chronicled past”,
    as Schama described it, is folly. But for others it is an essential component of
    the civilised mind’s struggle to understand the world, for if we cannot understand
    the past we can never hope to understand the present. These people understand very well
    the difference between a work of history and a work of historical fiction, but also understand
    the light that can be shed on the dry bones of the historical account by the judicious use of the
    an imaginative hypothesis.

    For me, Wolf Hall gives us a redefinition of what is possible in this kind of writing, a
    redescription of what the historical novelist can aspire to. It combines the best qualities
    of contemporary literary fiction with deep and carefully considered research into the period
    to create something that genuinely enhances our understanding of Henrician government
    and society. For Mantel the vivid characterisation of Cromwell becomes a vehicle within
    which she can navigate and reason about the events of the time, the motivations of the principal actors, and the consequences of their actions. It is fiction, and may not be true, but it raises our expectations for the level of sensitivity and empathy which we may consider available to us in our search for a sophisticated understanding of the past.

    But the seriousness of the endeavour doesn’t prevent her from creating amusement and
    entertainment, and her rich and detailed characterisations help us to see that although these
    English people of the 16th century lived in a world which seems so far away to us, they were perhaps not so very different in the essentials of their nature.

    I stubbed a toe occasionally – for instance I didn’t think Cromwell would have known what
    was meant by “money markets”. I don’t have the book to hand, but certain passages spring
    to mind – the atmosphere of Cromwell’s first audience with Wolsey, the description of Norfolk – rattling because of the relics he has attached to his clothes, and of course the harrowing description of the burning of the heretic.

    Overall it’s an exceptional book, and the Booker judges recognised that.

  2. OPINION PIECE Edith Pargeter The Heaven Tree (1960)

    The Heaven Tree is the first novel in the trilogy of that name. Set in the reign of King John, it ranged across English, Parisian and Welsh settings, following the fate of Harry Talvace. His talent for carving lead to a career as a master mason, building the sort of great medieval churches we still see when the lives of those who built them were lost. His fictional life encompassed endeavor and achievement, both enduring (his church) and transitory (the birth of his son), despite the conflict and jealousy that cause his premature death and provided the legacy that shaped the rest of the trilogy. This was my first historical novel.

    The Heaven Tree opened up two worlds for me, one personal, one professional. The first world was the shared culture of my mother and grandmother and readers just like them. I entered that culture when I was ready to leave children’s fiction behind. The novel belonged to the library, although I have a feeling I picked it up originally from the book case next to my grandmother’s chair. I was already predisposed to enjoy history (I had to ask my mother recently if all the scrambling around castles was for my benefit, or because we all wanted to go). But, I can pinpoint something more immediate happening when I read that book. The Heaven Tree made me care about its characters so that I then fully engaged with the backdrop to Harry’s life. It made me take it for granted that I could, and should, feel able to imagine (not conjure up) other societies and time periods. It triggered a hunger for more. I devoured all the historical novels on my mother’s shelves, my grandmother’s shelves, and those in our library in the shopping precincts halfway along the walk between our homes. Norah Lofts, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson come to mind. It may have helped sensitise me to the traces of the past in my early environment. I needed to be travelling through Salisbury towards my summer holidays to see a cathedral I could imagine Harry making, but you very rarely lost site in the home town of my childhood and youth of Uffington hill-fort or the railways works and statue of Isembard Kingdom Brunel. Like the medieval churches and cathedrals, it was hard to ignore the traces of the prehistoric and Victorian communities who had gone before. The Heaven Tree is bound up with my memories of an emergent stage in my life, with the memory of sharing and home, and with the memory of my grandmother sitting in her chair by the little book case, that she has not occupied for so many years.

    The second world The Heaven Tree opened was the world of history and historians by softening the ground for formal study. It made the idea of a medieval world approachable not alien, daunting and difficult to remember. It made the thought of people’s lives, now long dead, no less compelling than those of the living. History books were not dusty tomes (it took black hands and sneezing fits in the archives to discover there really was dust) and if the past is a foreign country, I had at least stepped on the path to becoming aware of what it meant to be parochial in time. There is no way of appreciating they do thing differently there, if there cannot hold your attention. This novel spurred me on to read others voraciously, rather than turning to another genre. By the time I covered the Tudor’s at school I already knew most of the facts they wanted to impart and moved easily within the space they wanted their pupils to inhabit. I discovered the same conversation, about thin necks and the executioner’s blade, in a history source book in the school library that I had read in a novel about Anne Boleyn and began to appreciate that some novelists based aspects of their books on research. I wanted to do research too. I could formulate questions that kept my teachers on their toes, which earned their support and encouragement and in turn allowed me to believe that I had found something I was good at, as well as something I cared about. University was not a natural route in my family, but that too became imaginable.

    Its impact also probably had more subtle influences. It is a bit of a poser why a women with no military family background (beyond the usual generation called up to the World Wars), with absolutely no taste for guts and gore, a distinctly limited ability as a rider, nor even an interest in sports or things hearty and competitive, should be so mesmerised by the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. I realise now that at the time of my introduction to historical novels I was being invited to imagine the men of Gwynedd massing to the banner of Prince Llewellyn while the protagonists played out the resolution of the plot. The trilogy enmeshed the protagonists in the shifting allegiances and demands of a society in a border landscape, never far from violent raiding or civil war. This may not be the conflict Charles I’s subjects endured, but all this (the connection between the general and the particular, and the theme of individuals and their actions in a society suffering extreme stress) feels very familiar.

    Yesterday I bought my own copy of the books that I remember with affection. As I reacquaint myself I am startled to think that my research interests, (the margins of authority in society, meaning and motivation in identity, allegiance and reputation, the mysteriously garbled transmission of Cromwell’s entry into the war years, undercover networks and insurgency, propaganda, the impact of the wars) may have earlier beginnings than I thought. Even more surprising, some of the methods I use seem to have a closer connection with novelists than I imagined. These issues force me to squint ‘slantways’ through the sources to try to get at issues not easily dealt with by a linear approach. I also stand in unfamiliar places and see how things look. By the time I finished The Scarlet Seed that completed the trilogy Edith Pargeter may have sowed more than I realised.


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