The 20th century is the most fertile ground for today’s historical novelists, according to new research, seeing off stiff upper-lipped competition from the Victorian age.
The Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, which has been won by names from Hilary Mantel to Robert Harris – and this year, Sebastian Barry, for the second time – has analysed all 650 novels submitted during its eight years of operation. Splitting submissions into centuries, and then into eras, the prize found that 38% of its submissions were set in the 20th century, while 19% were set in the Victorian era, between 1837 and 1901.
Further differentiating the periods covered, the prize said that the second world war featured in 14% of submissions, followed by the Georgian era and the first world war, both at 9%. “Just a scattering” of novels were set in ancient or medieval times.
The prize, now open for 2018 entries, is for “writing of exceptional quality set in the past”. Drawing from Scott’s novel Waverley: Tis Sixty Years Since, it defines “the past” as 60 years before publication.
Refining the data to those books shortlisted for the £25,000 award, the researchers found that almost a quarter (23%) were set during the first world war, while 14% were set during the second. Despite a reported skew towards men writing historical non-fiction, the gender split of entrants was fairly even overall: 47% of submissions from male novelists, and 53% from females. However, women’s stake in historical fiction appears to have grown: men outnumbered women writers at the start in 2010; in 2017, 61% of entrants were women.
Alistair Moffat, chair of judges and one of the Walter Scott prize’s founders, said that books such as Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent shows how “the Victorian era continues to fascinate writers and provides a rich seam of inspiration for novels”.
But he added: “It is the turbulent backdrop of war and conflict which seems to provide the most powerful draw for the best of our fiction writers. The first world war has been strongly in focus during its centenary, and was the setting of a mighty 23% of our shortlisted books, whilst the second world war and its legacy continues to attract fiction writers of the highest calibre.”
Historical novelist and Walter Scott prize judge Katharine Grant agreed. “Writing about the two world wars still, today, seems to generate a kind of ongoing authorial urgency that can, in dextrous hands, translate into writing of the sharpest quality. Perhaps this sharpness often just edges ahead,” she said.
Imogen Robertson, chair of the Historical Writers’ Association, described the war as “rich dramatic territory”. “Aside from the massive all-consuming drama of the war itself, it also put everything into flux. Individuals were confronted with complex moral questions while the world shifted and spasmed around them,” she said.
Two of the Walter Scott prize’s eventual winners – The Long Song by Andrea Levy and An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – were set in the Victorian era; as well as one from the 14th century (The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling), one Tudor winner (Wolf Hall), one from the 1920s (On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry), one from the 1940s (Tightrope by Simon Mawer) and one from the 1950s (The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng). The 2017 winner, Barry’s Days Without End, is set in 19th-century America.
Robertson said she was “not surprised” at the popularity of the Victorian era among writers. “I think writers are drawn towards eras of dramatic change and contrast, and the Victorian age provides both. The growth of factories and the railways altered the landscape and the society of Britain fundamentally at what must have seemed a dizzying speed. These huge technological and scientific advances challenged assumptions which were centuries old. That creates a fluidity, a confusion which is fertile ground for fiction,” she said.
Writers brought up on the 19th-century novels of authors such as Dickens and Eliot “are naturally going to be curious about the world they lived in, and what and who they left out of their fiction”, added Robertson. And “the parallels with modern society are obvious too – aside from the technological changes, the Victorians were daily confronted by the stark contrast between the rich and poor and the fierce arguments about who deserves help and who does not. The fact that those arguments were framed by the assumptions of the period gives us a way to examine, by contrast, the assumptions of our own time.”
Jerome de Groot, senior lecturer in Renaissance studies at the University of Manchester, agreed. “The 19th century is familiar to us in as much as the cities and the money and the European countries are much the same – they were the same kind of people thinking the same kind of way,” he said. “But writers can also use it to comment on contemporary life … You can draw parallels without necessarily making it so obvious that you are making a political argument – and that’s kind of what Scott himself was doing, too.”
Robertson herself sets her novels, including the Crowther and Westerman historical thriller series, in the 18th century “because it was the period where much of [the change of the Victorian era] began”, she said. “It was a time of civility and sudden violence, elegance and squalor, and many women of the period enjoyed an agency they lost, I think, in the 19th century. I had a rather Whiggish view of history in my 20s, and some aspects of the way society treated women in the 19th century reminded me that things can go backwards as well as forward, and that’s certainly worth thinking about today.”