Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history? – Paul Lay


Speaker: Paul Lay (History Today)

Much historical fiction is ‘tosh’ but then too is a lot of academic history.  Paul Lay looks at the varying quality of both forms of writing about the past as a means to answer the question of whether the success of historical fiction benefits or threatens academic history.  Lay also brings in the issue of film and the important role of myth.  Part of this paper discusses Asa Briggs, who turned 90 this earlier this year.  In celebration the IHR hosted a one day conference on Asa Briggs.


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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.

1 thought on “Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history? – Paul Lay

  1. With the important proviso that he is discussing the best of historical fiction, Paul Lay makes a number of thought-provoking points, centred on imagination, emotions and behaviour, on how historical fiction benefits academic history.

    Empathy, as a key element for both writers of historical fiction and historians, is well-illustrated by the comparison between Hilary Mantel’s ‘conscientiousness about consciousness’ and the historical training of a young Asa Briggs at wartime Bletchley Park, which enable them to decide what their respective subjects would do next – Cromwell in the case of Mantel and for Briggs, German soldiers. Lay also talks about the ability of historical fiction to spark historical imagination in children; how fiction actually makes him want to search out the facts; the power of historical fiction to describe and invoke lost emotions, how it offers a means of investigating thought and behaviour that historians should not ignore; and how it points the way to the cutting-edge work of historians of emotions such as Tom Dixon. I found his remark that fiction becomes historical fiction and the way that, for example, Jane Austen is perceived differently by each generation is an historical lesson in itself, particularly interesting.

    Also worthy of further exploration is the role of film in dealing with myth and the way a nation thinks of itself. Here Lay cites the films of Powell and Pressburger, such as a Matter of Life and Death and Canterbury Tales, and Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. Time for a repeat viewing, I think.


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