Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Historical Novel Prize in Memory of Georgette Heyer

In July, Sourcebooks reissued Susan Kay's Legacy, a classic work which had been out of print for years and which many readers and authors have called their favorite novel about Elizabeth I. On the cover, Sharon Kay Penman's blurb reads: "Legacy is by far the best novel I've read about Elizabeth Tudor."

The publisher's website mentions that Legacy won both the Betty Trask Award and the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize. The Betty Trask Award, given by the Society of Authors to first novelists under 35, is still in existence — winners include Elizabeth Chadwick, Sarah Waters, Nino Ricci, and Stephanie Merritt (aka S.J. Parris) — but the Georgette Heyer Prize was a fairly short-lived honor, and one of the only prizes for historical novels until very recently. I kept running across mention of it while compiling Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, but tracking down a list of winners proved elusive. The sponsoring publisher, The Bodley Head, no longer exists in the same form it used to (it was sold in the 1980s, became a children's imprint for a time, and was relaunched as a nonfiction imprint of Random House UK in '08).

Since I wasn't able to find an authoritative winners' list, I decided to re-create it as best I could, based on mentions on book covers and in reviews, library catalog searches, and other snippets of information I found online and offline. This is as complete a list as I was able to make (reprinted from Appendix A of Historical Fiction, with annotations added today). Please leave a comment if you have corrections/further details.

As with most literary awards, a few of the winners are still well known, while others have fallen into obscurity. Only Legacy is still in print.

In sum: the Historical Novel Prize in Memory of Georgette Heyer, a British contest for discovering new talent in historical fiction writing, was sponsored by The Bodley Head and Corgi Books from 1978 through 1989. Rhona Martin's Gallows Wedding was the inaugural winner. Though the award was named for famed Regency novelist Georgette Heyer, the awardees didn't necessarily emulate her style. Most have American editions.

1989 - A Fallen Land, Janet Broomfield.
A regional saga set in 1860s Edinburgh, in which a high-society family crosses paths with the family of a teenage girl from the slums.

1988 - Trust and Treason, Margaret Birkhead.
A gritty historical novel of treason and family loyalty in Elizabethan England; the author's only novel.

1987 - I Am England, Patricia Wright.
A Micheneresque epic set in the village of Furnace Green on the Sussex Weald, spanning five linked episodes from 70 AD through 1589. More from eNotes. That Near and Distant Place is the sequel.

1986 - The Cage, Michael Weston.
A grisly discovery in an 1880s tin mining community in Cornwall leads to the unraveling of a years-old murder mystery.

1985 - Legacy, Susan Kay.
Epic biographical fiction of Elizabeth I, her glorious reign, and the three men who loved her.

1984 - The Terioki Crossing, Alan Fisher. US title: The Three Passions of Countess Natalya.
Drama and historical adventure set on the ice of the Terioki Crossing in Russia in 1916.

1983 - Queen of the Lightning, Kathleen Herbert.
In 7th-century England, Riemmelth of Cumbria sets aside her romantic dreams in order to marry Oswy, Prince of Northumbria.

1982 - No award.

1981 - Zemindar, Valerie Fitzgerald.
This 800-page romantic epic, written in the style of The Far Pavilions, unfolds against the dangerous and exotic backdrop of 1850s India. Regrettably, this was Fitzgerald's only novel, and it's a prime candidate for reissue.

1980 - Children of Hachiman, Lynn Guest.
Dramatizes the life of 12th-century Samurai warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune, a renowned hero from Japanese history.

1979 - The Day of the Butterfly, Norah Lofts.
A Regency-era novel featuring unlikely heroine Daisy Holt, a country girl whose path to fortune begins in a London brothel. Submitted under a pseudonym; by 1979, Lofts was a well-known novelist!

1978 - Gallows Wedding, Rhona Martin.
A dark novel of witchcraft and forbidden love set against the backdrop of religious upheaval in Henry VIII's times.

Have you read any of these? Wouldn't it be nice if another publisher followed suit, setting up an award for unpublished historical novel manuscripts?


  1. I've read both Legacy and Zemindar - and I hope that lovely book gets another shot with new readers. I loved it. Thanks for these, I'm going to hunt some of them down if I can.

  2. How interesting that LEGACY is the only book awarded the prize that is still in print! One would have thought that award winners would forever be readily available.

    I think historical fiction as a genre needs more awards! It was great that WOLF HALL took the Booker Prize this year, but we hist-fic obsessed need our own award specifically for our genre.

    I have not read LEGACY but hope to pick up the Sourcebooks re-release the next time I'm in a bookstore. It will be interesting to see how it compares to the upcoming Elizabeth book by Margaret George.

  3. Interesting list! I haven't actually read any of those, although I do intend to read Legacy at some point, and I have heard good things about Zemindar.

  4. I'm hoping Zemindar's in the pipeline to be reissued, because it fits what publishers look for -- a long-out-of-print historical novel with outstanding and recent Amazon reviews (34 of them, nearly all 5-star). And they should reissue Rebecca Ryman's Olivia and Jai while they're at it...

    There's also the new Walter Scott Prize for our genre, but Wolf Hall won that one also, a few months ago. I'll be curious to see if that happens again, the same novel taking home both that and the Booker. I rather hope not, but I think the new David Mitchell would be a strong contender for both awards. The Heyer was a different sort of prize, not just because it was mostly for newcomers, but the novels that won weren't really of a literary bent.

    I read Legacy a while ago and enjoyed it. Mine is an old paperback that has a step-back cover which I remember well, only because they made Elizabeth look just like Reba McIntyre (same red hair, but in a beaded gown and ruff).

  5. Thanks for compiling this list -- so many new books for me to start seeking out!

  6. Olivia and Jai deserve another chance, as well as MM Kaye's Shadow of the Moon and Trade Wind (although there is one twist towards the end that is soooooo not PC for many of today's readers.

  7. I own a copy of "The Day of the Butterfly." It strikes me as a very typical Norah Lofts book, if not one of her better efforts, and I'm surprised the judges didn't recognize her distinctive writing style!

    Zemindar also sounds familiar, but I'm not sure whether I've read it.

  8. Hmm. I don't see anything on that list from my time setting, the thirties.

    But I'm always happy when an "out of print" book is resurrected!

  9. Tara W.10:56 PM

    I picked up a copy of "The Day of the Butterfly" awhile ago, and really enjoyed it! The heroine's a country girl who gets fired from a London governess position. She ends up as parlor entertainment in a brothel, where she meets an artist who might or might not be the man of her dreams. What's interesting about the novel is it mixes formulaic elements with a few less-conventional occurences. But I wouldn't say "The Day of the Butterfly" is stunning historical fiction, as it lacks much insight into its setting and the people who occupied it.

  10. I have copies of both Rhona Martin's "Gallows Wedding" and Kathleen Herbert's "Queen of the Lightning". Both are parts of series and I also have the rest. "Gallows Wedding" has a sequel called "The Unicorn Summer". Martin's novels are set in Tudor England and are well-written, striking stories but extremely bleak. I thought it odd that GW won a Heyer Prize as there are certainly no HEAs to be found in either of Martin's novels

    "Queen of the Lightning" is the middle of a trilogy set in Dark Age England, which are old favourites. I do wish they could be reprinted sometime.

    Notes which I posted on Amazon:

    Kathleen Herbert is a respected historian of the early medieval English period, and her knowledge and understanding of its diverse cultures and religions shine through her historical novels, sadly now out of print. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this little-known era.

    "Bride of the Spear" is the first book in her "Northumbria" trilogy, written in the 1980s, set in sixth and seventh century Britain, and based on actual historical figures. Bernard Cornwell's beloved Bebbanburg from "The Saxon Stories" features in the third book as well. There's plenty of warfare, violence, vengeance and blood feud to keep the action flowing, but the stories do have a basic historical romance element.

    1) Bride of the Spear" (aka "Lady of the Fountain")
    Follows the difficult relationship between Prince Owain, son of King Urien of Cumbria and Taniu, daughter of King Loth of the Gododdin

    2) "Queen of the Lightning"
    Riemmelth, the "Queen of the Lightning" of the title, is the last of Cumbria'a royal line. To ensure the safety of Cumbria, Riemmelth is forced into marriage with her hated enemy, Oswy, a Prince of Bernicia.

    3) "Ghost in the Sunlight"
    Riemmelth's daughter, Alchflaed of Bernicia, stirs up dark secrets from the past when she acts as peaceweaver and marries Peada, the son of Penda, king of Mercia.

  11. PS I just noticed that Lynda G Adamson has Lyn Hachiman's "Sword of Hachiman" listed as the GH prize winner in her book "World Historical Fiction".

    I was just checking because I had a feeling that "Children of Hachiman" was a children's story.

  12. Sorry, i meant Lyn Guest- it's late and i'm dozier than usual :)

    1. Lynn Guest12:03 PM

      Children of Hachiman is NOT a children's book. It is too violent and the Japanese names could be confusing. I know - I wrote it and I would not make it quite so graphic now. Sword of Hachiman is the U.S.A. title and perhaps more appropriate if less poetic.

    2. Hi Lynn, thanks for commenting and confirming that it's an adult book. We were discussing the novel further down in the thread and figured out that it wasn't a children's story - and it's good to hear this firsthand from the author!

    3. Lynn Guest11:31 AM

      Several have wondered why so many of the GH winners are out of print. Well, as of September, 2016 Sword a.k.a.Children of Hachiman in now back in print along with quite of few other GH winning novels courtesy of Romaunce (sic) Books,a division of Mereo Books. All, I think, are being published in the U.K. and the U.S. over a period of time. A very pleasant surprise after 30 some years!

    4. Hi Lynn, that's great news! Thanks for letting the blog's readers know - I'll go check out the Romaunce catalog.

  13. Thanks for all the info, Annis. I haven't yet gotten around to reading Gallows Wedding or Unicorn Summer, though I own them both (didn't realize the latter was a sequel). It would be interesting to see the original list of criteria for the Heyer Prize - it may have simply been for any type of historical fiction of the "traditional" type.

    The Herberts are favorites of mine also. I wish there was more written about that time in history.

    After checking on WorldCat, I'm reasonably sure that Sword of Hachiman and Children of Hachiman are the same book, the former being the US title. It doesn't look like a children's story. Maybe it got assigned that designation on Amazon etc based on the title?

    Day of the Butterfly isn't one of the Lofts I've read. I find it curious that it won, and it makes me wonder why she entered, if the award was meant to help discover new talent.

  14. The curse of the different UK/US title strikes again! Not sure where I got the idea that "Children of Hachiman" was a children's story - must have seen it mentioned somewhere (obviously wrongly).

    Nikki White notes in her comprehensive online article "Japan in Historical Fiction in English" :
    Guest, Lyn, Children of Hachiman. London, Corgi, 1980 (US title: Sword of Hachiman)

  15. Thanks, Annis, it's good to have the title change confirmed!

    Amazon UK has the publisher of the paperback as Corgi Children's. That's the copy I own, and once I find it again (can't remember what shelf I stuck it on after scanning...) I'll double check on that. It seems odd that a book categorized as modern/literary fiction in hardcover would be a children's title in pb, but stranger things have happened!

  16. Am a bit of an Elizabeth I fan, so may have to round up a copy of Legacy. Shame the award was so short-lived.

  17. I know - I wish the award was still around. I don't always follow (or agree with) literary awards, but the Heyer Prize gave all of these unpublished novels a chance in the market they may not otherwise have had. Definitely a good thing.

  18. Connie Jensen10:09 AM

    Hello- I have just come across this fascinating blog while doing research on Kathleen Herbert. I am so pleased to see she has some current fans. I may have some good news for you: as well as being an admirer of Kathleen's books, I have been a personal friend for many years, and she has entrusted me with finding a publisher for her fourth and sadly, final novel. She completed Moon in Leo about ten years ago, and then had a very severe stroke. In the years of struggle since, she has been unable to gather the book together and get it published. She has suffered increasing anxiety over this but finally managed to give me the manuscript in two large carrier bags. The pages were all out of sequence and very badly typed, but after hours and days of work, my husband and I managed to get it into order and scan it. It is now ready and I am looking for an agent. Kathleen's former agent now only deals with tv scripts.
    Here is a short extract from the synopsis to whet your appetites:
    A time and place much like our own. Hardship up and down the country. People turned out of their homes; others living rich beyond the dreams of the dispossessed. Above all, religious hatred sending groups into hiding; feeding constant fear of plots and threats and rumour. Terrorist packmen roam the remote parts of the country. Celebrity and Royalty parade in a public sexual carnival.
    This is England in the last years of the Stuarts; England in the days just before Monmouth’s rebellion; England at the time of the “Popish plot”; England of Restoration Comedy romps.
    In these dangerous times how can a naïve girl live? It’s harder to find a safe path through the thickets of treason and bigotry than through the rip-tides and quicksands, solid routes and sanctuary in the sand of Morecambe Bay.
    Her occultist father’s body burned; her brother pronounced dead from the deepest dungeon of Lancaster Castle; she fears herself threatened with marriage-by-rape to a predatory Placeman.
    I am now in the process of submitting details to several agents, including at least one Americn agency; Kathleen is a quintessentially English writer, but I believe has many American fans. If anybody knows of an agent and/or publisher who might be interested, please let me know. In any case, I will try to keep readers of "Reading the Past" informed about the progress of Moon in Leo. I hope that, if it is a success, the earlier three novels will be republished.
    Connie Jensen

  19. I read Gallows Wedding when it won. Very well written but depressing story. At the time, I couldn't understand why it won the GH award as she is so light and amusing, but none of the winners were in her style, which I imagine was deliberate.

  20. I've found it interesting that the winning books are so different from Heyer's. I've read three of them (not yet Gallows Wedding, though) and none are light or particularly romantic.