Naomi and Nicola cause a stir

Victorian stained glass portrait of the 7th-century abbess and politician Hilda of Whitby
Victorian stained glass portrait of the 7th-century abbess and politician Hilda of Whitby

This weekend, I lost what was happening in the rest of my world because I was immersed in the first Historical Fictions Research Network conference, in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University. The CFP for the second one, in February 2017 at the National Maritime Museum in London, will be sent out in the next week or so. There are conferences for historical novelists, but until now, there has been nothing for researchers studying how fictions and history work together. Science fiction professor Farah Mendlesohn and the Royal Holloway classicist Nick Lowe set it up with a team of postgraduate students and Anglia Ruskin colleagues, and I did my bit by running out to buy the biscuits. Next year I hope to be working on the new scholarly journal that the network is planning.

Normally at academic research conferences I bail out for one session, conferenced-out by too much earnest density in the papers. Show-off point scoring in the questions is also damned irritating. None of that happened this weekend. High points were:

  • Nick Lowe’s revelation that far more historical fiction is written about Ancient Rome than Ancient Greece
  • Abi Hunt’s recovery of the forgotten agricultural work of Lincolnshire women and children, refuting the post-Second World War fiction from local history that they never worked on the land at all
  • Victoria Whitworth‘s detective work tracing influences from the Book of Kells in an obscure roadside memorial plaque above Loch Ness
  • Debbie Challis’s unpeeling of Flinders Petrie’s Victorian fictions about ancient Egyptian pharoah Akhenaten
  • Jerome de Groot’s energetic attack on history, calling it an absence of the past, and a traumatic experience of seeing a void
  • Rowan Ramsey’s creation of Agincourt, Iowa: the Mid-West town that never was, but whose history and structures are built every year by North Dakota architecture students
  • Greer Gilman’s spectacular reconstruction of Ben Jonson’s world in Exit, Pursued by a Bear

There was also my paper, about how Naomi Mitchison and Nicola Griffith both use science and scientific research methods to give women characters agency in their historical novels. Cultural differences caused a minor kerfuffle in the questions afterwards, over the apparent marginalisation of men in these novels (which is not what I had said at all), and so a few people have asked me to post the paper as a pdf. Here it is: K Macdonald on N Mitchison and N Griffith



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