Dazzle with Delight: Marking the Anniversaries of the Walter Scott and James Tait Black Memorial Prizes

This summer marks important anniversaries for two of the UK’s premier literary prizes: the tenth anniversary of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the centenary of the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes. There is an obvious link between HNR and the former, and a personal one between this writer and the latter.

To start with the first prize, Walter Scott’s connection to historical fiction will be well known to HNR readers. The subtitle of Scott’s first novel, Waverley (1814), ’Tis Sixty Years Since, has become the (minimum) time lapse that separates each generation of historical fiction authors from their chosen period. The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was founded by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch in 2009. Asked about his idea, the Duke replies that “he thought he’d give it a shot,” not knowing whether it would last two years or ten. Over the past years, both shortlisted and winning authors have been featured in these pages. The winners include Hilary Mantel, (two-time winner) Sebastian Barry, Simon Mawer, Robert Harris, Andrea Levy, John Spurling, Tan Twan Eng, and Benjamin Myers. Finding themselves categorised as “historical novelists” has not always sat comfortably with the short-listed authors, but as Barry comments, the prize has “not only boosted and bolstered the historical novel, but also has begun to redefine it.”

How exactly the historical novel is being redefined is not clear, but one key aspect is emphasised time and again. However much the historical novel focuses on the past, highlighting forgotten stories and patching fact with fiction, many, if not all, of these authors stress how closely intertwined their work is with the present. Samantha Harvey (shortlisted this year for her novel The Western Wind, Vintage Publishing) emphasises, “if writing about the past can bring context, or overturn magical or mythical thinking, it can help us navigate our present and envisage our future.” In a similar vein, Peter Carey (shortlisted for A Long Way From Home, Faber & Faber) underlines, “My primary engagement is not with the past but with our present terrifying age and the volcanic forces that have made me who I am. Past, present, future, these are the tectonic forces that shape my fiction. As Faulkner wrote: ‘The Past is not dead. It is not even past.’”

The main prize is now flanked by a Young Walter Scott Prize, open to “budding historical fiction writers” in two categories (ages 11-15 and 16-19). The quality of the winning entries is always inspiring. Elizabeth Laird is one of the judges and an established historical novelist for children and young adults. She lists some of the key characteristics of the works submitted as “enthusiasm, the joy of exploring history, the delight of experimenting with words, and above all the thrill of exercising the imagination.” This evolution of the prize is the best possible way of ensuring that the genre engages younger generations, both as readers but, most excitingly, also as writers.

In this anniversary year the prize-winning novel was The Long Take (Picador, 2018) by Robin Robertson, who became the first poet (and incidentally the first Scot) to win the prize. Robertson’s remarks highlight his surprise. He admits to being “flummoxed” before adding, “while Walter Scott was deliberately becoming a novelist, I seem to have done it by mistake.” His work, a mixture of verse and prose, “is peppered with real historical events – for a sense of verisimilitude, to reinforce the timeline, to point up some important contemporary social and political moments, but also to remind us of certain facts. My hope was that this geographical and historical accuracy would allow the reader to trust the emotional terrain.” He continues: “We are currently living in accelerated times: of both instant information, often superficial and inaccurate, and wholesale amnesia. As Santayana famously said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’”

When talking to the patrons of the prize I mentioned that another Scottish prize – or rather two, the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes – was marking its centenary this year. This prompted the duke to comment wryly that he certainly wouldn’t be around if the Walter Scott Prize lasted that long. To celebrate ten years is nonetheless a wonderful achievement, and the prize is now firmly on the map: “a serious prize for serious writing,” according to Andrew Miller (shortlisted for And Now We Shall be Entirely Free, Sceptre).

The story behind the second prize to celebrate an anniversary this year is a remarkable one. Janet Coats Black was a cousin of mine who died shortly after Armistice Day in 1918. In her will, she bequeathed shares in the Paisley-based thread manufacturers, Coats & Company, to fund two prizes – one for biography, the other for fiction – as a memorial to her husband, who had been part of a well-known publishing family in Edinburgh. By way of a coincidental link between the Walter Scott Prize and the James Tait Black Prizes, the publishers A&C Black acquired the copyright for the Waverley novels in 1851 and printed collected editions during the second half of the nineteenth century. Janet Coats Black left precise instructions that the prizes she wished to establish were to be known as the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes and they were to be administered and judged by the University of Edinburgh. They have been awarded every year since 1919, making them the UK’s longest-running book prizes. After being overlooked for many years, Janet Coat Black’s role has now been rightly highlighted. This year, for the first time, a prize for a piece of creative writing submitted by an English postgraduate at the University of Edinburgh will also be awarded in Janet Coat Black’s name. It is a fitting tribute to the woman who had the vision to establish these book prizes and to the university that has continued to award them.

The first historical novel to win the James Tait Black prize came in 1931 with Kate O’Brien’s Without My Cloak. The Irish novelist’s first novel was reprinted by Virago Modern Classic in 1986 and still garners praise from readers. Among other prize-winning historical novels were by Robert Graves (1934: I Claudius and Claudius the God), C.S. Forester (1938: A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours), Salman Rushdie (1981: Midnight’s Children), Jonathan Keates (1983: Allegro Postillions), Caryl Phillips (1993: Crossing The River), Andrew Miller (1997: Ingenious Pain) and Beryl Bainbridge (1998: Master Georgie).

Moving to more recent years, Rosalind Belben (2007: Our Horses in Egypt, Chatto & Windus) told me her initial reaction: “Much gratification. No book of mine had won a prize before, so I was frightfully pleased.” For the past few decades the judging process has involved postgraduate readers in the English department, as well as the professor of English Literature. I asked Belben whether this had made the prize distinct in any way. She replies that the judging “was palpably different.” It’s a view that was borne out by A.S. Byatt’s reaction to winning the fiction prize in 2010 for her novel The Children’s Story (Chatto & Windus). She comments that “having put the shortlist announcement aside, I was very delighted to win a very, very distinguished prize.” That year’s shortlist also included Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which Byatt praises as “transcending the genre.”

Dr Lee Spink of Edinburgh University, who judged the fiction prize between 2014 and 2016, says, “[the judging] is what makes it absolutely distinct. There is no celebrity panel. These are students who love literature, are trained in it, who read widely in the field, and when you speak to the short-listed authors they notice and particularly value the fact that this is not necessarily an academic exercise but done by people who have a deep investment in books.”

Jim Crace won the James Tait Black Prize in 2013, for his novel Harvest (Picador). Replying to my question about the historical novel genre, he stresses, “even though the [historical] setting and timing of Harvest are hazy, its argument is contemporary. It attempts to be true without being factually accurate, whereas some of the finest historical fiction – Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books, for example – succeed in being both.” When asked about the judging process, he replies, “The fact that the prize was awarded by a University English Department wasn’t especially important to me, though I can tell that the close academic selection method has – recent company excepted – produced a list of winners which seems to have its finger more fully on the pulse of contemporary literature than any other prize I have received. Crace concludes, “All prizes have their own criteria, and that’s good. It gives a chance to a wide number of writers. As a reader and writer, I like that variety and diversity. The Tait Black is a distinguished part of that scene. It should stick to its guns.”

Both prizes will, I’m sure, stick to their guns and continue to delight readers with the best creative and experimental works that, as a contemporary of Walter Scott’s said of the Waverley novels, dazzle as if by “an electric shock of delight.”1

More details of both prizes and the winners can be found online:

Walter Scott Prize  |  http://www.walterscottprize.co.uk/

James Tait Black Memorial Prizes | https://www.ed.ac.uk/events/james-tait-black

About the contributor: Lucinda Byatt is Features Editor for HNR and teaches translation and history at the University of Edinburgh. www.lucindabyatt.com

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 89 (August 2019)

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