The first non-fiction title to be shortlisted since the 2015 relaunch of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award is ‘Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman’ by Minoo Dinshaw. Runciman was an English historian and author who wrote several books about the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades and is still regarded as one of the most influential voices on the subject in academic circles and beyond.
In the Author’s Note, Dinshaw explains that ‘Outlandish Knight’ is a term which seems to “capture Runciman’s contradictions, characteristics and enthusiasms with remarkable felicity: his uneasily sceptical attraction to chivalric romance, his preference for the exotic over the parochial; for the multivalent over the monolithic; for the poetic truth over the literal fact, and the organic tradition over the codified doctrine” (pp. xv-xvi). Runciman is certainly an intriguing choice of subject for a biography – he appears to be such an enigmatic figure as to be almost unknowable at times – and the contrast between the different aspects of Runciman’s colourful life and personality lies at the heart of the book. Dinshaw draws on Runciman’s unpublished (albeit sometimes unreliable) memoirs and other personal archives to tease out a complex and multifaceted portrait of the eminient historian who Dinshaw described as “an old-fashioned courtly queer” at the event for bloggers last weekend.
The chapter titles are taken from the names of tarot cards (one of Runciman’s numerous interests) and organised both thematically and chronologically. Born in Northumberland in 1903 to Liberal parents who were the first married couple to sit as MPs in the House of Commons, Runciman’s contemporaries at Eton included Eric Blair (better known as George Orwell) and as a student at Cambridge, he was photographed by Cecil Beaton. He travelled widely, was fluent in several languages and his social circle included Edith Wharton, Guy Burgess and the Queen Mother amongst many others. He later settled in Scotland and died in 2000 at the age of 97.
At over 700 pages in length, it’s fair to say that ‘Outlandish Knight’ isn’t a biography aimed at the casual non-fiction reader as Runciman’s contradictions can make him a difficult subject to engage with and I think it would appeal more to readers with an existing interest in Runciman’s life and work. However, the biography itself is undoubtedly an impressive achievement, eruditely written and thoroughly researched.
The shadow panel met in London on Friday to discuss the five shortlisted books and our winner will be announced on Wednesday 29th November ahead of the official winner on Thursday 7th December. In the meantime, you can find my reviews for the other shortlisted books at the following links: The End of the Day, The Lauras, The Lucky Ones and Conversations with Friends (reviewed in June).