The popularity of historical fiction: Elizabeth Chadwick


Speaker: Elizabeth Chadwick (author)

Why do readers enjoy historical fiction? Elizabeth Chadwick goes straight to the horse’s mouth by asking readers of historical fiction just that question. The results are interesting, funny, and sometimes unexpected.


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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.

6 thoughts on “The popularity of historical fiction: Elizabeth Chadwick

  1. To explore the reasons for the popularity of historical fiction, Chadwick chose to survey her own readers via Facebook and members of historical novel forums. The common response appears to have been that the human experiences within historical novels ‘restores colour’ to the academic historical narrative. This exploration of human emotion with all its personal intimacies fires the readers’ interest in historical periods and that we no longer simply remain the detached observers of historical events.

  2. It was interesting that so many people feel academic history can’t or doesn’t convey the human experience. I’m not sure how we can communicate that the very best of it can do precisely that (albeit not in the same way as a novel).

    • Perhaps its not so much what academic history and historical fiction can portray that is the problem but the method that each does so. History (at least where the evidence is there) can indeed convey the human experience very well. Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath is a brilliant example of this – Duffy manages to bring the sixteenth century village of Morebath, its vicar and its people vividly alive and is a fantastic read. However, if someone wrote an historical fiction on sixteenth century Morebath I suspect I would feel (or at least believe that I feel) closer to that village and its people.

      I would say that history can convey the human experience, but historical fiction can often make you feel closer to that experience.

      • When I was asked to appear on a panel at this seminar, my brief was the popularity of historical fiction and I had 15 minutes. Feeling slightly rabbit in the spotlight, I thought it would be useful and enlightening to canvas the readers and find out what they thought. I didn’t just canvas my readers, I widened it out to the online historical fiction community, and that brings me to something else I want to mention re the popularity of historical fiction, and that is the power of social media and online communities in driving that passion for history and the historical novel.
        The Internet has changed how we interact with others. It has made it easy to share opinions with people on a global scale and to make connections with people of similar tastes and affiliations. I was able to canvas hundreds of personal opinions on the popularity of historical fiction in the space of 24 hours, just by tapping into that global community. The Historical Novel Society, Historical Fiction Online, English Historical Fiction, Histfict, Goodreads etc etc. And that’s before you get to the blogs of historical fiction readers who have their own spheres of affiliation. Through these networks, readers make contact (that often grow into friendships) with people sharing similar interests and varied opinions. They are places to discuss favourite writers and discover new ones, to air grumbles and to enthuse to the skies. They are places where authors can connect with their readers and foster that sense of community. They are also places where the history behind the stories is discussed, debated, and learned about.
        I do believe that historical fiction has always been popular, but I also believe that social interraction is a big part of why it’s on a crest today. History, with its blend of emotional drama, adventure, dirty dealing, romance and politics; history with its ability to give us new knowledge, its places that are the same but different, and about us as we were then, is tailor made to flourish in today’s climate.

  3. The rise of the internet as a place for social interaction between author and reader is indeed a revolution in terms of making connections and creating community. I think historians often still fail to make as much use of the internet as they could. I wonder, though, has this also changed the way novelists write? When they can interact with their fans across the world does this change what is written?

  4. I think it makes authors more accountable to their reades. There’s a strong core readership of historical fiction who know their stuff and enjoy talking about it online, and so much the better if the author joins in. I think it’s probably too early to tell whether this interaction will change what is written, but it will be interesting to look at a few years down the line. At the moment I can only say that it’s not changing me, and I do have a lot of online contact with readers.


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