One of the first events I went to at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last month was a discussion at the Spiegeltent with Francis Spufford and Dilys Rose chaired by Lee Randall. Spufford and Rose are the respective authors of ‘Golden Hill’ and ‘Unspeakable’, two of the most widely acclaimed historical novels of recent months.
Spufford has written five non-fiction books but ‘Golden Hill’ is his first novel which has already won the Costa First Novel Award, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Ondaatje Prize last year. It is set in 1746 and tells the story of Richard Smith, an Englishman who arrives in colonial New York to collect a large sum of money. His true reasons for arriving in the city are not made clear at the beginning but when his creditor Lovell struggles to pay up, he becomes embroiled in a series of encounters with various figures in New York’s growing social elite at a time when the city had a population of just 7,000 people.
I bought a copy of Dilys Rose’s latest novel ‘Unspeakable’ after the event as the premise sounds fascinating. Rose discovered through researching family history that she is related to Thomas Aikenhead, the last person to be hanged for blasphemy in Scotland in 1697 at the age of 20. Aikenhead was a student at Edinburgh University and was betrayed by his friends in a society dominated by religious authoritarianism.
Along with comic novels, I think historical fiction is one of the most difficult genres for authors to get right particularly where the level of research is concerned – too much description can weigh down a good story while obvious inaccuracies will damage an author’s credibility. Spufford said he found maps particularly useful for his research, particularly as there are few structures dating from the mid-18th century left in New York City today, making it more difficult to visualise what the city would have looked like at the time. However, Rose and Spufford both said they reached a point where they had to put research to one side and let the characters and story develop. They were always conscious of the necessity of achieving a fair balance between presenting the historical context accurately without making the text completely impenetrable for a modern audience.
Some may find that both books require some perseverance to get accustomed to the verbose prose style, which will largely depend on the reader’s existing level of historical knowledge. However, although I have yet to read ‘Unspeakable’ which contains dialogue in Scots, I can say that ‘Golden Hill’ succeeds in parodying the picaresque novels of the era with a great deal of humour, particularly in the letter written by Smith to his father from the debtor’s prison which is the most entertaining part.
All six of the events I attended at Edinburgh this year were entertaining and thought-provoking. Ali Smith reading from her forthcoming novel ‘Winter’ and talks on buildings that shaped Scotland and how the city of Edinburgh has inspired so many authors over the centuries were other highlights alongside events with Henry Marsh and Maggie O’Farrell. My festival experience at Edinburgh has been excellent overall – welcoming and well-organised – and I would recommend it to all bibliophiles.