Friday, April 02, 2010

Shortlist for the first Walter Scott Prize

Back in February, it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch had set up a major new literary prize, worth £25,000, to be given for historical fiction. The prize honors Sir Walter Scott, often credited as being the father of the historical novel, and the definition used for the award reflects Scott's criterion. The subtitle of his novel Waverley, about the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, is "Tis Sixty Years Since." Accordingly, novels eligible for the Walter Scott Prize must be set more than 60 years before the time of publication.

The inaugural shortlist, announced on March 31st, includes seven novels:

Hodd by Adam Thorpe - a reimagining of the medieval legend of Robin Hood. No US publisher as yet.

Lustrum by Robert Harris - set in Cicero's Rome. The US title is Conspirata.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant - women and power in a convent in Renaissance Ferrara.

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears - historical thriller surrounding an industrialist's death in early 20th-c England.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer - occupants of a house, 1930s Czechoslovakia.

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds - set around the High Beach Asylum in 1840s England.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - a reinterpretation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's fixer, and the 2009 Booker Prize winner.

The time periods and settings are fairly wide-ranging, though predominantly British. More details on the shortlist here; the Mawer, Foulds, and Mantel were also Booker nominees. Of them, I've read the Mantel and the Dunant. Both are worthy novels, though Mantel has the edge in my opinion.

The Scotsman has the scoop on how Borders Book Festival director Alistair Moffat persuaded the Duke and Duchess to launch the prize. In a recent press release related in the Guardian, Moffat provided more info about the prize as well as justifications for the current popularity of historical fiction:

"The best way to understand the past is often to read a novelist rather than an historian," he said. "We need to know where we came from, what kind of people our ancestors were ... And that's one reason people are reading historical fiction in greater number than ever before. What people in the past believed - such as the absolute certainty about Heaven and Hell in the Middle Ages - is every bit as important in telling us what they were like as what they left behind in the historical record."

Historical fiction, according to Moffat, is enjoying an unprecedented boom. "Historical fiction may have become more popular because at a time when the future seems terrifying to us, we need to refer back to and understand the past more fully," he said.

I agree with some of this, but other parts go too far even for me, since surely historical novelists rely on primary sources as well as historians for the details they weave into their fiction. Still, very nice to see a major prize for the genre. I'll be curious to see if the Scott prize judges agree with those for the Booker!

More details also at Lucinda Byatt's blog, A World of Words.

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