This session brought together three enthusiastic historical fiction writers and a professional historian, and promised to discuss some of the aspects of their work, as well as the genre in general; hopes were high for an interesting and informative session. Imogen Robertson’s most recent publication is Paris Winter set in the early twentieth century. Iain Gale’s work focuses on the Napoleonic Wars, his most recent title being Keane’s Company. Robyn Young works on the period of the Crusades and having published the successful The Brethren Trilogy, is now completing a second, The Renegade Trilogy, based on the life of Robert the Bruce. Fiona Watson, the professional historian on the panel, specialises in Scottish History, particularly the medieval period.
The debate began well, with the Chair’s (Ann McMillan, Honorary President of the Dorothy Dunnett Society) opening question pertaining to research methodology. Robyn Young gave a particularly lively and detailed answer about her own (perhaps unorthodox) approach; combining the use of historiographical readings with location based research and a “living history” approach,(including having learnt to horse ride and sword fight). In light of this, it is unsurprising that Young’s response to the follow up question (what inspired the authors to write historical fiction?) was that she wanted to bring stories to life. Gale admitted that a lifelong fascination with the military mind was what drew him to the Napoleonic wars, as well as a background in military history. Robertson’s Paris Winter was inspired by a set of photographs belonging to her grandmother.
Unfortunately, this was where things broke down. Two questions into the session, what seemed like a coordinated attack on professional history began, with no prompting from the Chair. Continuing with the question of motivation, Robertson suggested that one of her other motivations for getting involved with historical fiction was because she disliked history scholarship so much. “It’s very top down… this happened and then this happened” she stated. Young backed her up on this, admitting that she had hated history at school and she didn’t like all the dates and facts. Both authors betrayed the fact that they know very little about the current state of history research and teaching, clearly clinging to a pre 1960s ideology of historical practice. At this point the Chair finally invited Fiona Watson to participate, and her contribution, like the session itself, began well but ended in disappointment. After voicing frustration at what professional historians cannot do, and the imaginative gap that historical fiction occupies in these cases, Watson went on to suggest that no professional historian considers the lives of real people (the wealth of micro-histories which deal almost exclusively with the minutiae of everyday life appeared to have passed her by) concluding with the statement “obviously professional history has its place.” This was very gracious, considering that all three authors admitted that much of their research comes from this very source. The overall impression was that the authors were colluding to answer a challenge which no one had levied.
I did not expect this session to consist entirely of a defensive and badly informed attack on history as an academic profession. None of the three authors seemed to see the irony in admitting how much their research owes to this very discipline. There was little “debate”, given that Watson, simply agreed with everything that was said, albeit a little less enthusiastically than her fiction writing counterparts. Historical fiction is a wonderful way in which the frustrations of professional history can be exorcised; myths can be made and stories told. It was thoroughly disappointing that, rather than use this platform as an arena to positively display their craft, these individuals decided instead to use it as a space to try and discredit that of others, a decision which appeared to be rooted in the mistaken belief that this would lend them legitimacy.