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