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

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

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

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

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

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