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Ian Mortimer

November blog

The November blog is written by member, Ian Mortimer reporting from the Institute of Historical Research winter conference Novel approaches: from academic history to historical fiction 17-18 November 2011.

Historians and historical novelists – you might be excused for thinking that that is a marriage made in Hell, with Beelzebub as best man and a hemlock-flavoured wedding cake. However, last week the Institute of Historical Research brought together a wide range of writers, historians, critics, agents, publishers and other interested folk to discuss the relationship between history and historical fiction. Everyone was very polite, nobody was murdered, and dozens of brief insights sparkled across the hall like rockets on Bonfire Night. In fact I left thinking that I would rather have seen more argument; but then, as a historian as well as a novelist, I might have found myself in a tricky situation. After all, which group of potential reviewers of my books would I least like to alienate?

Day One: Discussion

The first event saw David Loades (emeritus professor of History, University of Wales) take the stage with Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall. As I write that sentence I can’t help but note that I describe the historian by his position and the novelist by her work. This difference was reflected in their talks: the historian talked about practitioners and the novelist about her practice.

David began by stating that what divides the different types of historian (and types of novelists too) is their 'priorities'. He then described the range of historians working today, paying attention to what sorts of evidence they use and (more particularly) which they eschew – naming names as examples of each category.

It was therefore quite striking when Hilary Mantel talked about the practice of writing historical fiction, and did not attempt to categorise types of novelists. I wondered whether it is true that novelists do not wish to speak for other novelists whereas historians generally are only too ready to categorise and attack or praise other historians. (I think it probably is.) Read more...

Day Two: Plenary lecture

Alison Weir, like me, writes both fiction and non-fiction. However, unlike me, she writes with one identity about the same individuals, most notably Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. Therefore I was particularly interested to hear her speak about the problems and advantages of writing across the fiction and non-fiction divide. Clearly it isn’t easy. Ironically this is for reasons that contrast with the consensus reached the previous evening. It is simply too awkward in terms of the novelist’s art to include everything known about a person in a particular place, and the writer can easily be drawn into explaining everything on a factual basis.

Also, according to Alison, ‘the major challenge facing any historical novelist is language’. Should you use contemporary language patterns and vocabulary? Not if you want your book to be intelligible to the majority of the history-reading public. Not if you want large numbers of people to enjoy your storytelling. So where does that leave accuracy and authenticity? In a word, it leaves you compromised. Read more...

First panel session: ‘The popularity of historical fiction’

The first session brought together Elizabeth Chadwick (novelist), Professor Justin Champion (Royal Holloway University of London), Dr Tracey Loughran (University of Cardiff) and Peter Straus (agent at Rogers, Coleridge and White).

Elizabeth had done a fair bit of market research on the Internet to find out why her many readers like historical fiction: several seemed to be keen on the easy or ‘no-effort’ way of learning about the past (probably much to the annoyance of all the historians in the room) but also ‘to experience what it was like’. I could feel the circling pack of historians itching to leap like wolves, howling, ‘but fiction does not necessarily tell you what it was like...’

But the said pack of historians kept quiet. Indeed they had to. These readers’ voices from the internet were simply stating the way things were for them; and no historian can argue that the reason someone gives for enjoying a historical novel is wrong, even if they do feel the actual history is debatable. This was just the point discussed by Tracey. Read more...

Second panel session: ‘The differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history’.

In the chair was Dr Philippa Joseph, publisher and scholar of Renaissance culture, who brought warmth, glamour and wit to proceedings. I am sure everyone appreciated this – but I did in particular. I had meant not to prepare anything in advance in order to try and respond to points raised by other speakers. However, having stayed with my mother-in-law the previous evening (who could have drunk Hemingway and Oliver Reed under the table – and then cooked them both breakfast in the morning) I was having difficulty in marshalling my responses. Read more...

Third panel session: ‘Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history?’

Jackie Eales (Canterbury Christ Church University, and President of the Historical Association) kicked off by slightly rejigging the question to ask ‘whether fiction threatens history?’ Her answer was an emphatic and persuasive ‘No!’ Discussing the positive relationship between history and fiction, she drew attention to Captain Marryat’s classic children’s novel, Children of the New Forest, and commented that ‘it raises all sorts of questions for children that historians cannot ask...’ including questions about morality.

Moving on to adult novels she observed how much had changed since Helen Cam (a medieval historian) published a  Historical Association pamphlet on historical fiction in 1961 and stated that good historical fiction must ‘equate with the temper of the age’ and ‘concur with the established facts of history’. How much has changed: regardless of how seriously we take our fiction, we would probably not see those as the essential criteria for judging fiction good or bad these days. In concluding she stated that fiction benefits academia because it encourages students and so academics should welcome it. Read more...

Final round-table

Jane Winters, the tirelessly hard-working and efficient instigator and organiser of this conference took the floor at the end for the round-table discussion. She began by posing a question to all the speakers. What can academia learn from the popularity of historical fiction? I don’t have any notes on the rest of the question-and-answer session because of what happened next. I answered ‘Scrap the Research Excellence Framework’.

I believe that Research Assessment has done terrible damage to the relationship between academic history and the reading public. It requires the 3,500 academics in the UK to research and write in a narrow, constrained way, eliminates everything that is innovative in form and expression, and denies them the possibility of writing dramatically or with sympathy for the subject. The result is that almost all academics are neutered in terms of influence on the public’s views of history – unless they can find an outlet in a non-academic forum, such as TV, popular history or radio. Read more...

My own conclusions

The whole conference was a series of surprises, even to the end. I know some speakers felt some parts were not concentrated enough so that they could put their points of view across fully, or discuss areas of contrast; but I think, given the scope of the event, it was asking the impossible to give every point of view due weight. Also, the very nature of the conference was one of conflict and contradiction, so it was fitting and poetic that contradictions should arise and not be resolved. Indeed, I often find myself writing that it is only when you come face-to-face with irreconcilable contradictions in your subject that you start to understand it.

I also came away reminded how historians barely understand anything about the ways that novelists put together their novels – they think they know but they do not. It is ironic that I wrote an essay for the conference on ‘why historians should write historical fiction’. Likewise, however, it is startling how little novelists understand the nuances of historical practice – about the limitations on the nature of a fact, about objective and sympathetic views of the past.

I was most struck by Hilary’s sweeping statement that all historians aim for neutrality. The more I think about this, the more examples occur to me when quite the opposite is true, whether we are talking about Paul Lay's myth-makers, historians of events with political ramifications, medical historians celebrating great discoverers, or just local historians wanting to praise their local hero.

Will anything we do change as a result of this conference? I can’t speak for anyone else but for my part, yes. I was most struck by the writers who engaged closely with their readers and went the extra mile in recreating for them the ‘experience’ (albeit illusory) of knowing a place or a scene. I am aware of the difficulties of this from having written two novels but, being a historian by training, I found it rejuvenating to rethink what I do in entering into the past, and taking the reader there.

At the moment, I have in front of me the scribbled words ‘the art of describing unpredictable life should be equally unpredictable, even when it is historical’. I cannot remember at what point in the conference that occurred to me, but I think it will inform both my historical writing and my fiction from now on.

Ian Mortimer

Fiction: James Forrester is the fiction-writing persona of Ian Mortimer. His latest book is The Roots of Betrayal, his second Elizabethan conspiracy, published in July 2011 by Headline Review.


Non-fiction: The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England is a follow-up to The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. It will be published by The Bodley Head in March 2012.


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