A new award — Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction — will be awarded on June 19th at the Borders Book Festival. Sarah Dunant, one of the finalists, explains why Historical fiction is the genre of the moment.
Toni Morrison’s astonishing imagination enriched our understanding of slavery. Sarah Waters’s gay adventures rewrote the sexual history of the Victorians, while my own trilogy on the Italian Renaissance told through the experiences of women could not have been conceived, let alone written, even 20 years ago, such was the lack of documentary evidence.
But there is more to this new flowering than good stories. Historical fiction, like history itself, always tells us as much about the time it is written as the period it is writing about. And right now there are huge questions to be asked about the renewed power of religion. It informs global politics, dominates international security, influences social and scientific policies in countries as big as America and spawns a new intellectual war between believers and those out to ignite a new secular revolution.
Suddenly, history has a great deal to offer us when it comes to penetrating “otherness”. And when understanding how belief can be so powerful that it changes attitudes towards death, suicide, even murder, history is a potent tool. It was only a few centuries ago that Europe was consumed by religious wars, and faith both oppressed and brought comfort and meaning in times of brutal poverty and inequality. How far did the threat of Hell or the promises of pleasures in Heaven dictate behaviour then? How and when did the adrenalin of fervour turn to violence? And how did the word of God become the rights of men rather than women or children, imposing a straitjacket on human sexuality bound to end in hypocrisy and abuse? Having spent the past ten years deep within Renaissance Italy, it sometimes feels to me as if I have been learning as much about the present as the past.[Historical fiction is the genre of the moment]