Jane Winters: historical fiction opinion piece


I’ve never been very good at picking my favourite anything, whether films, books, music or even flavour of ice cream. I usually struggle even to arrive at a top ten list, and any such ranking would be guaranteed to fluctuate over time. So I’m not going to write about my favourite historical novel, but take the easy option and fail to narrow it down. I spent much of my teenage years hoovering up historical fiction of all kinds, a lot of it undoubtedly not very ‘good’. I loved the Dorothy Dunnett Lymond saga, which made no pretence at presenting real people or events but was enormously involving. Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, a novel firmly in the Josephine Tey camp when it came to presenting Richard III, was probably the book that made me want to study medieval history at university (including a special option on the Wars of the Roses). I suppose it is indirectly responsible for the job I do now.

However, as an adult, there are two historical novels which have left a lasting impression on me, Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness. Both are long (a good thing), beautifully written, meticulously researched and try to get to the people behind the events, in a way that is rightly beyond the scope of academic history. The first deals with the French Revolution and subsequent Terror, focusing on the three key figures of Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins. It is a wonderful insight into the ease and speed with which ideals and essentially good people can become corrupted faced with the reality of power. The second, sadly Thompson’s only novel (he died at the young age of 45, before it was long-listed for the Booker Prize), is a fictional biography of Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle and commonly viewed as the father of modern meteorology. Fitzroy suffered from terrible depression, one interpretation of the ‘thing of darkness’ of the title, and ultimately committed suicide. The book is tinged with melancholy, but also a great deal of joy at a life which made a contribution to our history.

Jane Winters is head of IHR Publications and IHR Digital

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 “Jane Winters: historical fiction opinion piece

  1. I quite often have people tell me they are studying medieval history because their interest has been sparked by my work and I was tickled to discover that my novel The Greatest Knight is cited on the medieval studies history degree homepage for the University of Hull. It’s obvious that they have a lot of students applying because of that novel! It kind of worries me – what a responsibility for influencing someone’s study and perhaps career choice. That citation also illustrates I think the overlap we have between historical fiction and academia.

    My choice for outstanding historical fiction as an adult is a novel titled Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebee Hill. It’s the story of a band of Lakota Sioux on the eve of the coming of the White Man and traces through a handful of characters their history as marked on the sides of their teepees, their culture, their lifestyle. The author translated her work into the Sioux language and then back into English to gain the correct rhythms. Hanta Yo means ‘In a spiritual way I come,’ and it had a profound effect on me.

    • When we were planning this conference, so many of the researchers we spoke to said that historical fiction had sparked their interest in history. It is a responsibility, but it must also be lovely to think that you’re instrumental in people ending up studying something that they love.


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