Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 – Part IV: My Era’s Better than Yours
Author’s Note: No novelists or readers were harmed during the course of this discussion. Everyone was very nice and left their weapons at home, whether it was a gladius, a musket, a heavy bottle of gin or a big axe.
When a conference is represented by writers of novels that span thousands of years of human history, one question is bound to arise: which era is the best?
Now, for someone like me who loves nearly all periods of history, this is a really tough question. For others who specialise, there can be only one (or maybe two) answers. To decide which is best there are two options. The first is the Harry Hill method (FIGHT!) but we were not in the Colosseum in Rome but a University Conference Centre and they probably would not have liked their guests doing battle in their lecture theatre, so we had a discussion instead.
Philip Stevens of Urban Apache Films chaired the discussion between novelists representing the eras in which they write: Harry Sidebottom for Romans, Giles Kristian for the Vikings and English Civil War, Angus Donald for the Middle Ages, Suzannah Dunn for the Tudors and Antonia Hodgson for the Georgians.
In the Middle Ages there was a little-known renaissance of culture in the twelfth century. This saw a rise of a new form of music and poetry, that of love, which was different to the heroic songs and the church music that was also around. It also saw the beginnings of the idea of chivalry and its improved treatment of women. It can be argued, however, that love stories were also around in the times of the Ancient Greeks. The Viking Age is an interesting time to write about. It isn’t known what the Vikings actually thought as their history was written by those who observed (and usually suffered) under them. Their sagas were largely written down in the thirteenth century, long after their golden age, so the author has lots of freedom in deciding how to write them. Less so with the Civil War but both are good fun. The Tudors brought many interesting characters, particularly female ones, and are from the Early Modern period so there is a connection to both history and now. The Georgian period is one that has been largely neglected by novelists but it was a time of great change and a time when London became the powerhouse it is today. It was also a time of satire, free thought and gin (this last one was popular with the audience).
Other elements of the discussion involved the use of research in shaping a story, that most research isn’t used as they are novels, not history books. The main story is made up with a real underlying story based on a real event, such as a battle. One problem with all historical novels is that most people who read them already know the ending (which is one good thing about alternative history, as I’m finding at the moment!)
All in all it was a very interesting and entertaining discussion. So, what is your favourite era?