Monday, March 14, 2011

British History Week: Elizabeth Chadwick on British History

Many thanks to Marg at Historical Tapestry for inviting me to the blog and asking me this interesting question:

“Why is British History so fascinating to authors and readers? With a general answer to the question and then more specifically Elizabeth’s particular area of interest.”

British history does seem to feature largely in lists of historical fiction outside of the UK, especially in the USA and Australia doesn’t it? Of late there has been a widening out of the road, but it is still incredibly popular.

I think there are several reasons for this. A few hundred years ago, Britain was expanding and developing an empire, and British cultural influences were felt all round the world, much as American ones are today. Both wars and peaceful settlement established colonies of people with British roots around the globe. Even if those colonies broke away, the groundwork was still there, and in some cases it is only recently that such ties have loosened or disconnected. To the Brits themselves, their ‘glorious’ history was taught, fostered and remembered at home, so that it became a thing of pride to be celebrated.

Many British settlers in the USA and Australia had a need to follow their family trees back to their roots to learn about where they came from. The ‘glorious’ history was theirs too, with all its ancient and fascinating stories. American and Australian settler history is still young in comparison to European which is the home soil of the family trees, so it fosters a natural curiosity, and a desire to maintain those roots. Most people want to know about their ancestors and the way they lived, and most people love absorbing stories.

With this deep seated interest in the past and with a natural slant towards Britain, story tellers were always bound to mine that part of history for inspiration and they had an eager audience waiting to listen, to read and later to watch. The Victorians had become deeply and romantically interested in the past and authors such as Walter Scott and novels such as Ivanhoe, were eagerly received and devoured. The pre-Raphaelites were busy producing their romantic jewel-like visions of the past, and wherever the Empire builders went, they carried the words and images of British history with them.

Into the 20th century, British history made a prolific hunting ground for the film industry. We had Robin Hood, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and they were all fascinating subjects to make films around. Later there were TV series’ too, and here English social life and the country house set made its mark. Jane Austen became an international name. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has always been a favourite round the world in book and film. They’re not historical novels in the sense that the authors wrote them about the times in which they lived, but they are historical to us now and with their delicate green and pastoral settings, or windswept moors, they evoke particular images of Britain that have become dear to readers’ hearts. Other British historical series that made their mark round the world included the adaptations of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and Upstairs Downstairs. British TV has a particular skill in these adaptations and they make readers want to find out more about the period, or dwell in Britain in their minds, a while longer. With this strong background, it has been easy too for the new wave of TV adaptations to come out of America and take on the world by putting a very modern gloss on top of the history and reinvent it sexily - The Tudors for example. It’s historical soap opera writ large and Henry VIII and his 6 wives, already well known in history and legend, have hit super status and increased the wattage of the lamp shining on British history.

I don’t believe that British history is any more fascinating than anyone else’s, even though there are so many fantastic tales. It’s just that it was in a position to garner exposure during the years when reading had become the norm and the world was opening up. Film and TV were a natural progression that fed back into the reading and the interest in the history.

My own interest stems from having been born and raised in Britain (we moved around the country in my formative years before settling in Nottingham, central to the tales of Robin Hood) and from birth having imbibed a rich nourishment of historical tradition. Having said that, I was more interested in ancient Greece and Egypt as a child – because of the fantasy elements of the gods, and the gruesome fascination that most children have for mummies. My pattern of strong interest in the details of my own country came from reading up on the Angevin kings when I was writing my first novel – which had been inspired by a French TV series set in the Holy Land. I started to read about Henry II, Richard and John – the whole Angevin bunch really – and became hooked. As a reader, not a writer, I had also had a flirtation with the Regency period due to the novels of Jane Aiken Hodge.

The bottom line is that I believe past cultural events have conditioned many readers to particularly associate with British history, and that the present continues to mine it by building on foundations laid down by a couple of centuries of media exposure, and those foundations are built on the soil that contains a fertile tangle of roots and imagination. It’s a powerful starting point with a very long reach.

Elizabeth Chadwick has recently been awarded the RNA Historical Novel Prize for To Defy a King in the UK. This book is now available to US readers, having recently been released by Sourcebooks. To see what we here at Historical Tapestry thought of To Defy a King, check out our conversation about the book. (In summary, we loved it!)


  1. Congrats, Elizabeth on the RNA award.


  2. Congratulations on your RNA award. I'd just like to agree with you about the USA's interest in British history. British history IS American history. As an American, if I want to look into my own roots, my country's origin, it leads back to England every time! Thanks for the post.
    Marci Jefferson

  3. Lovely post and very interesting. I noticed you mentioned one of my favorite series, Poldark!

    Congratulations on the award.

  4. Congratulations to Elizabeth for her RNA Historical Novel Prize. But are any of her readers surprised?! I haven't read this newest one yet but I am sure this award was well deserved.

    What a thought provoking answer, thanks to Marg's great question. We are infants, here in the US, when it comes to history. Since we were originally British colonies and citizens, it only makes sense that many of us have roots in the UK. I also think, for me personally, that in learning about those roots; King John and the Magna Carta, Henry VIII and religion, Richard III's blind and equal justice..., we also learn more about how our country came to be.

  5. Congratulations on the award Elizabeth.
    You are so right. As a New Zealander my historical roots are firmly British. And my love of history was cemented whilst watching the plethora of BBC period dramas that were so popular in the 70s.