The Walter Scott Prize: a new award for historical fiction
“An appropriately old-fashioned act of patronage of the arts”: the new £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
by Lucinda Byatt
(published August 2010: Historical Novels Review, Issue 53, pp. 16-17)
Rows of leather-bound books in subtle reds and browns still line the bookshelves in the library at Abbotsford; the ceiling is heavy with intricately carved oak, and through the windows the lawns roll down past hedges and rose beds to the River Tweed. In the early nineteenth century this tranquil scene was half a day’s journey from Edinburgh, with its buzzing literary and cultural scene, the capital of the Scottish Enlightenment, the Athens of the North. It was this national pride and the rapidity of the changes that had taken place in Scotland over the previous century that prompted Walter Scott to write his bestseller Waverley or tis Sixty Years hence, a book that launched a genre in 1814 and made him the founding father of the historical novel. Nearly two hundred years later, this beautiful room was chosen as the place to launch the first Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. All of the shortlisted authors (see below) were present, except for Sarah Dunant, who was celebrating her birthday in Italy, and Hilary Mantel who sadly was not well.
The current owners of Abbotsford and generous patrons of the prize, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, have – in Mantel’s own words – undertaken “an appropriately old-fashioned act of patronage of the arts” and the accolade now ranks as one of the top five literary awards in the country. Taking its cue from Scott’s own example, the entry criterion for this brand new prize is that novels must be set sixty years ago or more. The genre has had a particularly strong year and in his short presentation the chairman of the judges, Alistair Moffat, sought an explanation for the genre’s resurgence by stating, “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 then went on to announce the prizewinner, Hilary Mantel. This was no real surprise since Mantel’s Booker-winning book, Wolf Hall, is so widely acclaimed, but I still felt that maybe one of the other authors would have been equally deserving – my own favourite would have been Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.
Mantel was sadly not present, but in a message that was read out to the audience, she stated: “Intense involvement in history was what started me writing. And now – although I hope to go on writing contemporary novels – the challenges and perplexities of historical fiction have become my preoccupation. And just in time, because this has been an interesting year for writers and readers of the historical novel – perhaps a turning point year.” On that closing note she has thrown down a gauntlet to enthusiasts of the genre, above all its writers: good historical fiction is now safely back inside the fold, as it were, and a dedicated prize will do much to keep these standards high. Gone are the bodice-ripping days that gave historical fiction such a bad name in the past. Above all, the new historical fiction is firmly rooted in extensive research but not at expense of terrific plot, character and, perhaps most importantly, a resonance for own times.
Framed against the magnificent fireplace in the library, unlit on this brilliantly sunny day, the Duke of Buccleuch added: “So the venue for today’s presentation could not be more appropriate, and it is I believe a wonderful way of reminding the world of the profound importance of this great house and of the man who created it.” In many ways, the historical novel has come home.
THE WALTER SCOTT PRIZE 2010 SHORTLIST
Hodd by Adam Thorpe
Lustrum by Robert Harris
Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Text copyright Lucinda Byatt