Opinion Pieces

We have collected various opinions from staff who work in the IHR about what historical fiction means to them. What is their favourite historical novel and why? How do they view fictional writings when researching the past?

During the week following the conference we also ran a competiton for visitors to tell us their opinions.  These can be found in the comments sections as you scroll down this page.


Competition winners

At the beginning of the week we set up a competition.  We asked you to write a short piece about what your favorite historical novel is (why? and, if applicable, how this has influenced your thoughts on academic history?).

We are now very pleased to announce the winners of this competition:

£25 Amazon book vouchers     Susan Beaumont (click here for the entry)

1 year subscription to the IHR journal Historical Research    Jody Allen (click here for the entry)

We will be in touch with the winners at the beginning of next week regarding their prize.  Well done!

And thank you to everyone who took part.

Danny Millum: historical fiction opinion piece


Really good historical novels convince you that you’ve gained a genuine insight into the period they’re set in, probably dangerously so. Fascinating detail, gripping plot and vivid characters sell you a version of history which is no more ‘true’ than any other – it’s just more memorable so it sticks in your head. In fact I reckon the more interesting, the less realistic. Much of life for most people through the ages has been sitting around in the mud eating turnips, an unpleasant series of banalities understandably omitted from most successful historical fiction.

That curmudgeonly proviso out of the way, the book of this sort I really enjoyed in the last couple of years was The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. As ever, it doesn’t take long before nearly all the details of a novel completely fade from memory. I can remember some pottery, suffragettes, writers, the odd trip to Germany and some incest I think (unless that’s just come straight out of my own subconscious). I was going to look it up, but then I thought, conveniently in terms of not having to bother doing any research, that that would defeat the point. The reason I’m recommending the book is OBVIOUSLY not all the stuff I’ve forgotten, but the bits that remained. It’s set in late-Victorian / Edwardian England which is portrayed as a period open with possibilities rather than as naïve-golden age that is descending inevitably towards war. The characters are both extraordinarily modern in terms of the many progressive ideas being expressed, and lifestyles led, in the artists’ colony many of the characters inhabit, and yet unknowingly locked into their time and place, governed by restrictions of class and gender that they, trapped inside them, can only begin to dimly countenance. I guess this is what makes it good – regardless of how accurate it is in terms of the history of pre-WW1 England, it makes you look at your own time in this way, and wonder what invisible constraints of convention and thinking will appear risible to those looking back from the 22nd century. If they bother at all, that is….

Danny Millum is Deputy Editor for Reviews in History and IHR Digital/Publications Editorial Assistant (web)

Jenny Benham: historical fiction opinion piece


Like so many historians I find it difficult to read historical fiction. Not only because I can find myself dissecting the story as if dealing with a gobbet but primarily because I’ve got to that stage in my life when reading a book for pleasure usually means picking up Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People or Caesar’s Gallic Wars just to see if I missed something for my research the first few times I read them. To remedy this sad state of affairs, my sisters bought me a book back in 2002 called Arvet efter Arn (The Heritage of Arn) – a follow-up to the Crusades trilogy by the well-known Swedish author, journalist and political commentator Jan Guillou. The book follows the life of Birger jarl, famously known as the founder of Stockholm, and his vision in forging the Swedish kingdom in the thirteenth century. It wasn’t the historical accuracy that kept me engrossed in this book – this is a period of Swedish history with few contemporary sources and lots of legends – but the portrayal of Birger jarl as an unpleasant, disliked, ruthless leader who intriguingly never assumed the throne for himself. Out of pure curiosity, I decided to go and look for some of the evidence myself and found that Birger jarl had been trying to negotiate a treaty with King Henry III of England. As a historian of treaties and international relations, I simply could not let this one lie and have just put the finishing touches to an article on the subject which I’m hoping to publish in the near future. Not sure that this was quite what my sisters intended when they bought the book but it has certainly encouraged me to read more historical fiction.

Dr Jenny Benham is the Project Officer for the Early English Laws Project at the IHR. Her research interests include international relations and diplomacy in the high middle ages, and the comparative legal history of England and Scandinavia with a focus on peace and dispute resolution in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Peter Robinson: historical fiction opinion piece


Historical fiction offers the historian and the author the rare opportunity for constructive collaboration. The two genres can of course be happily combined within a single person, but very often historians or historical researchers are employed by authors to provide material for their fictions. In this often happy marriage, the former assists in the production of a narrative but is untroubled, or rather unburdened, by the ‘leaps of faith’ necessary to hold together a plot and portray emotional complexity, in a way which would be unacceptable to most academicians. The author benefits by being relieved from time-consuming archival ‘spade work’ and is able to tap the researcher’s knowledge. I experienced the joys of this reciprocal relationship in 2007 when I was commissioned by author June Goodfield to conduct archival research for her historical novel Rivers of Time (2010). It was with great anticipation that I read chapter drafts and smiled at the way this fertile mind incorporated the material which I had supplied into a wonderful story of will power and reconciliation. But this raises a question for the production of historical fiction. Is historical fiction better served by authors immersing themselves in their own historical research, or does a degree of hands-off collaboration curtail the past’s invasive tendencies?

Peter Robinson is a visiting Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research

Jonathan Blaney: historical fiction opinion piece


Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald

One of the most moving exhibitions I have seen was at the Gare du Nord in Paris: set up on the concourse was a series of photographs of children, with their names and their ages when they died. What made it so immediate was that this was spot from which the children were deported by train for extermination.

W. G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz connects railway stations with the Holocaust and a meditation on  human civilisation. The title character, Jacques Austerlitz, was sent from Prague at the age of four on a Kindertransport and grew up in Wales. In adulthood he tries to discover what happened to his parents.

There is a dreamlike quality to Austerlitz, making the book both precise and elusive. Eerie black-and-white photographs add to the impression of a past that is fully realised and yet unreachable. Jacques travels to Terezín concentration camp, where his mother was imprisoned, and to Paris, where his father was last seen. At the new Bibliothèque Nationale he learns that the vast building was constructed on the site of a warehouse complex where goods taken from the Jews of Paris were stored.

In the years from 1942 onwards everything our civilisation has produced, whether for the embellishment of life or merely for everyday use, from Louis XVI chests of drawers, Meissen porcelain, Persian rugs and whole libraries, down to the last salt-cellar and pepper-mill, was stacked there in the Austerlitz-Tolbiac storage depot.

Sebald’s novels attempt a kind of moral archaeology. Austerlitz was the last work published before the author’s untimely death and it is surely one of the great literary achievements of our time.

Jonathan Blaney is Project Editor for British History Online (BHO)

Simon Baker: historical fiction opinion piece


My first historical novel was Black Arrow awarded, along with The Horses of Petrock, as a primary school prize for, unsurprisingly, history. (I can’t remember why I got The Horses of Petrock). Being ten at the time I was intrigued by the cover of Black Arrow with its Robin Hood figure stretching his bow ready to fire. I’m afraid that the cover continued to intrigue but the book did not, partly as Black Arrow wasn’t about Robin Hood (a childhood hero – too much Errol Flynn and Richard Greene) and partly as it was difficult to read – too much archaic language and too many characters for a ten-year-old with the seemingly endless summer break ahead. I did try to persevere with the book and returned years later when it appeared on a list of literature that I was expected to read for English. Again I gave up because The Day of the Triffids, Brown on Resolution, Treasure Island and The Hobbit seemed, and were, more appealing.

Two weeks of a bed-ridden, childhood illness tempted me once more to read Black Arrow but I became sidetracked by Ben-Hur. I had just seen the film and, still fresh in my mind, it seemed a better prospect than Black Arrow. I gave up on the Prince of Judah – far too much “theeing” and “thouing”. Well I suppose all historical fiction is like that and so returned to Black Arrow only to recover from the illness and put it aside once more.

Rain-drenched camping holidays during my teenage years prompted searches for something, anything to read – Ellis Peters, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie  and countless other now forgotten novels found in the games rooms of various camping sites. There seemed less “theeing” and “thouing” in the novels but the books did not feel historical – they portrayed characters that happened to live in a historical period.

And now I read historical fiction for fun and relaxation. I don’t check historical veracity, or get despondent about archaic language, or the improbability of plot developments. I enjoy them. My reading choice of historical fiction is admittedly eclectic and determined by second-hand book shops and friends’ recommendations. Lately I’ve read Karen Maitland’s The Owl Killers – gritty medieval realism; begun the C. J. Sansom series of books about the Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake; relished Barbara Ewing’s The Mesmerist – sexual mores and hypnotism is a winning combination; and thoroughly enjoyed Bruce Chatwin’s Utz (perhaps not truly historical but nevertheless set in Cold War Czechoslovakia). I’ve also managed to read and enjoy Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities despite the fact that I’ve struggled with the other works of Dickens. Oh and I still haven’t read Black Arrow.

Simon Baker is editor for the Bibliography of British and Irish History

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.

Jennifer Higham: historical fiction opinion piece


My favourite historical novel is undoubtedly Katherine, by Anya Seton. My mother has always been a great lover of history, and, although she didn’t study it, her enthusiasm for historical fiction and visiting historical houses had a huge impact on me as a child. She’s a great fan of this novel in particular (and I have a sneaking suspicion the heroine may have been the inspiration for my middle name) so as soon as I was old enough, probably 11 or 12, I read it eagerly. The novel details the life of Katherine de Rouet, beginning with her entrance at the court of Edward III, but mainly focusing on her relationship with John of Gaunt. The ultimate star crossed lovers of romantic historical fiction, Katherine and John’s relationship is followed over the years. Though it ebbs and flows, their association survives her unhappy marriage to Hugh Swynford, the death of John’s wife Blanche, the birth of their four illegitimate children and the political and military machinations of the court. When, after all this time, John defies convention and marries Katherine, despite her low birth, the reader who has followed their fates against the vivid backdrop of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War cannot help but feel moved. Although I went on to study history, I never chose to study this particular period, so, for better or most probably for worse, my associations of it are still very much shaped by Anya Seton!

Jennifer Higham is librarian for the Institute of Historical Research and History & Archaeology Subject Librarian for the Senate House library.

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