We talk to Jerry Brotton about his HWA Non-Fiction Crown shortlisted book, This Orient Isle.
The HWA Non-fiction Crown celebrates the best in historical non-fiction writing. When did you first become interested in history?
Since schooldays I’d always been interested in where history met literature, art and politics. My first degree was at Sussex University, a radically interdisciplinary place that encouraged us to disregard artificial boundaries between the humanities, so history was the ‘glue’ that brought all these other disciplines together. Historical maps seemed a particularly powerful place to study the intersections of all these fields, and that’s what defined my early academic research, but has since been both a practice and a metaphor for how I write history.
How did the initial idea for This Orient Isle come about?
My PhD supervisor was Lisa Jardine, who became my self-appointed ‘Surrogate Jewish Mother’. We wrote an academic book together in 200 called Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West, about the Islamic influence on the European Renaissance. We laughed about a Jew and a Gentile writing about Islam, but also saw the difficulties that posed, and we’d always talked about the possibility but difficulties of developing the argument around the specific case of Tudor England, and how Protestantism strangely allied itself with Islam as two religions that rejected what they saw as Catholic idolatry. But it took me fifteen years to work out how to write that book, which became This Orient Isle. My greatest sadness is that Lisa died six months before the book came out.
How do you approach research and how do you know when you’ve done enough?
It’s a question all historians ask themselves! Research has to start in the archives—which isn’t as simple as it sounds, as you first need to identify your archives—and from there it’s about unearthing the stories of the individuals that have to bring the history to life. There’s a strange alchemy involved in moving from research to writing, and I don’t think anyone knows exactly how it works. But one thing is for sure: research is endless. Things crop up decades after you’ve written a book that make you go back and question your original assumptions. It’s one of the great frustrations—but also pleasures—of writing history.
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
There were endlessly unexpected finds. Some were examples of Englishmen converting willingly to Islam in the late sixteenth century. Another realisation was the ease with which they could travel across territories in North Africa and the Middle East due to the Anglo-Ottoman alliance signed under Elizabeth I. Places that we now regard as no-go areas like Aleppo and Raqqa were home to English merchants who were safer there than in Europe, where they were more likely to be arrested under the Inquisition.
Clare Mulley, Chair of Judges, said of the shortlisted books, ‘Each of these six exceptional books engages with the past in a way that resonates powerfully today.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
The book had obvious contemporary resonances as it tries to tell a story of amicable relations between England and the Muslim world nearly 500 years ago. One of its aims was to argue that today’s British Muslims also have a relationship with England’s distant past, even as far back as the Tudors. But after the book came out Brexit happened, which provided yet another parallel with the book’s story. Elizabeth I was excommunicated in 1570—the ensuing isolation from mainland Europe pushed her into an alliance with the Islamic world. You could say this was a theological Brexit! Then as now it wasn’t sustainable. After Elizabeth’s death her successor King James I saw that being outside Europe wasn’t sustainable, and he made peace with Spain, allowing the English to trade and travel throughout Europe. What a good idea…
Much of your work concerns early modern mapping and you’ve had great success with A History of the World in Twelve Maps – should we expect more on that subject?
Yes! I’m currently curating an exhibition on maps at the Bodleian Library—I live in Oxford—which will open in 2019. It’s called ‘Talking Maps’. It’s great fun to be given the run of a world-famous library of thousands of maps; it’s like being a child in a sweet shop. After that, I think I should give maps a rest…
Which history books would be on your personal shortlist?
Usually the ones dealing with the subject I’m currently researching! History also goes in such fashionable cycles that it’s difficult to draw on enduring models of how to write history. I’m also a terrible magpie—I’ve written about maps, art collections, and literature—so I’m drawn to history books that also cross disciplinary boundaries, like Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, and pretty much anything by Natalie Zemon Davis, one of my great heroes.
Absolutely. As historians we often find gaps in the historical record, voices that suddenly disappear, and there’s little we can do to fill those silences. It is the historical novelist’s role to address them. There can be no better account of how they are able to do this than Hilary Mantel’s recent Reith Lectures, a masterclass in the responsibilities of the historical novelist.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
As well as the Bodleian Library map exhibition—which also involves writing a catalogue—I’m editing the correspondence of William Harborne, the first English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who lived in Istanbul on and off for ten years in the late sixteenth century. I’ve recently been working in Brazil a lot, including living with an indigenous tribe, and I’m thinking about writing about the early history of discovery in that region and its contemporary legacy.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Global, provocative, contemporary, cross-cultural, surprising.
Jerry Brotton is the author of the bestselling A History of the World in Twelve Maps and has also been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and Heseell-Tiltman Prize for his book The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and his Art Collection. He is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London and a regular broadcaster and critic.
Author photo © Dirk Bader