Tuesday 30 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 5: Myths, Ivory Towers and a Curious Quiz

Panel chairperson Kate Forsyth with Jessie Burton
So, my blogposts arrive at last at HNS Conference Day 2 – Sunday 7th September – and a most intriguing, rich discussion, ‘Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained’, chaired by Kate Forsyth and featuring Jessie Burton, Essie Fox, Deborah Harkness and Professor Diana Wallace. I found this debate intensely interesting and the thoughts and opinions of the speakers really well-formulated.

Each of the speakers talked about the kind of HF she writes and about how she transforms what are often ancient and traditional tales into something appealing to the modern reader. This took us to familiar territory: one of the key areas of discussion during the conference was that of understanding and portraying the people of the past. How do we bridge the gap between our modern sensibilities and old belief-systems and codes of behaviour?

Deborah Harkness
Deborah Harkness, an academic who’s turned to fiction-writing, knows ‘how limiting a fact is’ and how for historians ‘it’s all about the interpretation’. This came up at the London 2012 conference too, when Philippa Gregory compared HF with the kinds of books historians write. Both forms require what Deborah calls ‘historical empathy’, an understanding of ‘where facts stop and imagination and interpretation begin’. Historians, she says ‘really are writing fiction most of the time.’ Kate Forsyth reinforced this notion: historical fiction is ‘history set to music’. Jessie Burton says ‘novels hit the bloodstream quicker than a didactic exercise'. Deborah advised academics (such as a certain David Starkey, anyone?) to ‘stop standing in ivory towers and throwing rocks’.

Professor Diana Wallace and Essie Fox
Essie advised writers to be aware of the social conditions of the era they’re writing about by reading contemporary stories – for her, these included The Water Babies, The Little Mermaid, Varney the Vampire and Hindu myths. Deborah said, very cogently, that ‘power isn’t a thing, it’s a set of relationships’ – this, of course, is why the getting or losing of power makes great fiction.

Power relationships exist between the sexes. Historical fiction can address the objectivisation of women and the limits of their freedom. Diana talked of the sense of guilt she felt about reading HF when she was younger, the feeling that if she read Georgette Heyer she should do it on the quiet. She feels that HF used to be neglected because it was seen as women’s fiction. A.S. Byatt’s Possession changed perceptions: literary critics started to take HF seriously. She pointed out that it’s always assumed that Sir Walter Scott was the father of HF but many were writing it before then, including women. HF can fill the gaps, ‘tell the story from the other side’.

The panel also discussed myth and fairy-tale as triggers for fiction. (One of my favourite quotes on this has always been Angela Carter’s claim that she put ‘new wine in old bottles’.) Deborah was fascinated by the occult sciences lost or sidelined by the advent of modern science. She thought about how in the 1500s people had a certain world view which included believing in mythical creatures. She started to wonder how such creatures could live in the modern world and not be noticed – before she knew it, she was writing a novel. Essie talked about serendipity – how she enjoyed reading Angela Carter and Gothic fiction, how she was drawn to the fusion of HF with magic realism, how a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall led her to the theme of lost love and the atmosphere of dark secrecy. Kate quoted J.R.R. Tolkien: ‘History often resembles myth, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.’

The heroic quiz panel!
 James Heneage, Anthony Riches
 and Cathy Rentzenbrink
After a workshop where I learned that the word ‘feisty’ meant originally ‘breaking wind’ (note to self, do not describe any heroine in such terms from now on), the conference was rounded off by a hilarious Historical Fictionist Quiz, with Jon Watt as quizmaster. He pitted the panel – James Heneage, Cathy Rentzenbrink and Anthony Riches - against the audience. Yup, the whole audience! It was a joyous way to round off proceedings and one which I hope will be repeated in future conferences, particularly if a photo of Sean Bean in his prime as Richard Sharpe features again …

Charlie Farrow and Richard Lee
Katherine Clements and Dianne Ascroft
With Alison Morton and Anna Belfrage
Many many thanks to Richard Lee, Charlie Farrow, Jenny Barden and everyone involved in organising another successful and very happy conference. Thanks once more to the short story competition readers Carol McGrath, Ouida Taafe, Charlotte Betts and judge Ian Skillicorn. I loved the chance to meet old friends (Doug Jackson, Dianne Ascroft, Essie Fox, Anna Belfrage, Alison Morton, Emma Darwin, Hana Cole, Helen Hart, Henriette Guyland, Katherine Clements, Liz Fenwick, Margaret Skea) and new (Mary Tod, Katherine Lim, Helen Hollick), although of course, afterwards I realised there were several people there I had wanted to meet but somehow missed.

All good wishes to the organisers of HNS Australasia and HNS North America next year. I’m already looking forward to HNS London 2016! As Bernard Cornwell said at HNS London 2012, ‘It’s got a great future, history!’
By the way, did I mention I'd won a prize ...?

Part 4 of these posts is here
Part 3 of my reports on HNS London 2014 is here and Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.

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