Deborah Swift reports on this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford.
This year’s Historical Novel Society Conference was held in Oxford, a beautiful and historic setting for what turned out to be a thought-provoking event for writers and readers of what has come to be labelled ‘historical fiction’. The conference itself was based in the concrete and glass Mathematical Institute, and attendees were greeted by a giant sculpture of what appeared to be a disembodied brain. Around the walls were diagrams of DNA, Platonic solids, and degrees of tessellation. This seemed to be a rather appropriate place for us to analyse, dissect and probe into the art of historical fiction.
The conference kicked off with conference organiser Carol McGrath talking with Fay Weldon and Jo Baker about the rise of the ‘Big House Story’. Fuelled by programmes such as Downton Abbey and the sense that, in these houses anyway, ‘the life downstairs’ was somehow the real life, books about the ‘big house’ have burgeoned in popularity. The tantalising idea that people might be able to bridge the divide between upstairs and downstairs is very attractive to writers. Fay Weldon broadened this idea, pointing out that it wasn’t just the Big House, but that ‘in any institution, people can step out of their class.’ Jo Baker told us that for her, brought up in a working class environment, inhabiting the servants’ shoes was her access point for understanding ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and inspired her novel ‘Longbourn’. The theme of the role of the servant classes was developed later in the conference with a panel discussion called ‘Ears at the Door’ about the role of servants in historical fiction.
With so many novelists present, everyone was interested to get an insight into what might be ‘The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction’. In this discussion, agent and bookseller David Headley confessed to his longing for a really big and sweeping saga set in World War II. Jane Johnson, publishing director of HarperCollins made a plea for more diversity and said she would love to see something culturally different. Some discussion was had about the fact that this label of historical fiction encompasses an enormous number of different types of work, but although the genre is very wide, retailers tend to categorise it too tightly. David Headley countered this by saying that retailers love a label to point readers in the right direction, and that what we see on the shelves is driven by publishers. To which agent Carole Blake expressed her frustration, and said that when she pitches to publishers they demand ‘a fresh voice’ and ‘something new’, but when she pitches them a fresh voice, they then ask, ‘But who is it like?’
The media of course also have a big influence on what is bought and sold in historical fiction. According to the panel, BBC TV have commissioned a series based around the works of Homer, and 20th Century Fox are making a film based on The Odyssey, and like it or not, film and TV does sell disconnected books. So better get researching your Greek myths! Nick Sayers, publisher at Hodder & Stoughton, hoped there will be much more literature in translation and that immersion in a different culture’s history will provide a contrast to our own.
Integrating fact into fiction, or fiction into fact, is at the heart of the historical novel. Several panels addressed this in different ways. Margaret George, Jenny Barden, and Andrew Taylor explained how this embedding of fact or fiction works for them in their novels. Jenny Barden explained that she likes to provide the historical basis for a good story by unpicking the facts, and that a novelist’s imagination allows a process in which new and surprising interpretations of events can take place. Andrew Taylor said that when he was looking for a subject for his novels, he looked for a ‘very high recognition factor’ but with areas of historical doubt within which he could flesh out his story. Gaps are important for the novelist, but frustrating for the historian. He pointed out that there is a tendency to get snagged on history with a capital ‘H’ but that ‘if we fail to engage empathy, we do absolutely nothing’.
The welding together of fact and fiction was a subject that the audience loved and there was some discussion around the question; ‘What does a historian have, that the novelist doesn’t?’ Margaret George pointed out that Rhett and Scarlett in ‘Gone with the Wind’ have become more memorable reflections of the American Civil War than the historical facts. In a later discussion Margaret George pointed out that the strength in historical fiction is that there is only one viewpoint, and that you do need to take a stand on contentious opinions. For example if you are writing about Elizabeth I, you must have a view on whether she was a virgin or not, and take a stand which affects the action of the novel, whereas a historian can show you the evidence but not necessarily draw a conclusion. Historians in the audience pointed out that the best non-fiction also tells a coherent story. Margaret George’s latest novel, ‘The Confession of Young Nero’ examines the motivations of this well-known character to provide a ‘why’ for his historically documented actions — the psychology of biographical figures is something that a novelist can conjecture about and explore in a way that a historian cannot.
A session by Melvyn Bragg fed into this theme when he explained what was historical fact in his new novel, ‘Now is the Time’, and what was ‘made up.’ His talk gave us an enthralling picture of the background to the Peasants’ Revolt and life in medieval times, and he urged us to see how the politics of the past have shaped us today.
But it was not all talk. Also giving us an insight into the early medieval times was a display of embroidery based on the Bayeux Tapestry about the Battle of Fulford in Yorkshire – the events preceding the Battle of Hastings, in this anniversary year. Painstakingly designed, and full of quirky humour and insight, it was visual history at its finest. Re-enactors treated us to a rowdy display of building a shield-wall, as we sipped our coffee, and nibbled our biscuits, before plunging us back into the battle between ‘Faith and Morality’ led by Manda Scott.
The panel of Kate Williams and Margaret George reminded us that in former centuries the language of religion permeated everything, but this has a tendency to turn modern readers off. In Tudor times, for example, everything existed within the circle of God, and nothing could be done without taking God into account. When Henry VIII’s children died, the tragedy was viewed through the lens of this circle of religion, and the idea that God was perhaps meting out punishment. Modern sensibilities within this environment sound false, so it is important to develop characters in their own world where they are thinking conventionally, before the writer allows them to break out of the mould. However readers enjoy characters who break the prevailing moral code, and are prepared to challenge the social environment.
Tracy Chevalier introduced us to her new book, and spent some time teasing out the difference between ‘history’ and ‘the past’. In her view, ‘the past’ is the whole chunk of what lies behind you, whereas history is when you choose a small moment and make it central. In other words, we are creating history through our choice of where our focus lies. It was a pleasure to hear her talk about how she began to write, and her talk was truly inspiring.
As always at these conferences, one of the joys is to network with other readers and writers, to chat to historians and to re-enactors, and to make new friends. The Conference Dinner was one of those occasions, where we were entertained by a costume pageant, Renaissance music, and magnificent food. Afterwards we were treated to an insightful speech by Christopher Gortner on the long, hard apprenticeship of the writer, which has perhaps become somewhat devalued in this age of instant publishing.
In this brief article I can only highlight a few of the sessions that stood out for me. What impressed me more was the willingness of all the delegates to share their experience, offer writing advice, wish luck to those who were pitching to agents, and offer congratulations those who had won awards. The event had a real community feeling, and will not easily be forgotten.
Deborah Swift is a member of the HNS and the HWA, and the author of four adult historical novels and The Highway Trilogy for teens. She lives in the North of England near the Lake District National Park.
- Oxford street © Christopher M. Cevasco
- Carol McGrath, Fay Weldon & Jo Baker © John Jackson
- Vanessa Lafaye wins the HNS Short Story prize, with judge Ian Skillicorn © John Jackson
- Melvyn Bragg © Johnny Yates
- Manda Scott & Kate Williams © John Jackson