Hosted by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, Janet Beer and historical novelist Sarah Dunant, this hour-long session asked whether historical fiction was more of a woman’s genre, and explored both women’s roles within history and what makes a historical novel. Both Beer and Dunant agreed that from their own experience, it appeared women were more drawn to historical novels than men, who have seemed more interested in the battles and bloody side of history.

Dunant’s work itself is more specific to the Italian Renaissance, something she has particularly researched through works of classicism in the 15th century – including Florentine artwork, for example. How women’s bodies were portrayed under the veil of Catholicism, either due to their work as a courtesans or in convents, was a key factor in drawing parallels to today’s society. The taboo nature of sexuality is an example of this; how syphilis rapidly spread within the courtesan community and AIDS within the gay community displays how both groups were on the outskirts of their respective societies, yet an integral part of it.

Beer and Dunant explored a wide variety of issues, including the role of medicine in Dunant’s works. Dunant said that a certain fascination with medicine of the past has grown within the genre in recent years, particularly since the Second World War, and that it is detail like this that she thinks really enhances pieces of historical narrative. She suggested that a pertinent question to ask when creating a work of historical fiction is if you were there, what would you have done?

Beer also discussed the question of censorship throughout history, together with the practise of book burning over in the USA, and suggested that perhaps one role of the historical novel is to undo this censorship. A current example given was the controversial implied rape scene in a recent episode of the BBC period drama, Poldark. Should we as a civilised society censor such attitudes in compliance with a more politically correct culture? Or would it be more valid to portray society as it was in history within fiction, including its more sexist attitude towards women? Durant herself was in favour of the latter, in order to stay true to the experiences of the women’s experiences portrayed.

Overall, the session gave a fascinating insight into how history within fiction should be dealt with, and opened up room for an honest discussion with the past when viewed from the present day. This was another fantastic event hosted by this year’s literary festival; onward to the next!


Words by Giorgia Fandaoutsaki and Eleanor Bennett.