Back in October, I had the unexpected pleasure
of being invited to be a judge for the Romantic Novelists' Association's Historical Novel Award, together with Diane Pearson, the president of the RNA, and Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society.
Although I'd reported on dozens, if not hundreds, of typescripts over the years, been a publishers' reader, read scripts for the Royal Court Theatre, and been a preliminary judge for the Harry Bowling Prize, this was my first time as a proper judge. I'd heard stories of horse-trading behind the scenes at the Booker and I was half-expecting it to be daggers drawn at midnight with furious arguments over clashing choices.
I've known Richard since he founded the HNS back in 1997 and I rather doubted that blood-letting was his style, but I introduced myself to Diane in some trepidation. Fortunately, she proved to be charming and intelligent and I felt confident that I could work with her.
Shortly before Christmas, the books arrived. There were six books on the short list, including Heart of Stone by our own Jane Jackson. The others were To Defy a King by Elizabeth Chadwick, Trade Winds by Christina Courtenay, The Golden Prince by Rebecca Dean, The Wayward Governess by Joanna Fulford and The Jewel of St Petersburg by Kate Furnivall. They were all very different in style, period and content, which made for interesting reading.
So, what were we looking for? Historical accuracy with convincing period background and detail - without resorting to information dumps - was a must. We wanted well-rounded, interesting characters we could believe in and with whose problems we could identify; they, too, had to be of their period - no anachronistic 21st century behaviour. And we were after that most difficult thing: language that was convincingly in period without resorting either to archaisms which tripped up the reader or inappropriately modern language.
As this was an RNA award, naturally, we wanted the passsionate romance between hero and heroine to be central. and the book had to be nail-bitingly unputdownable. The bar was set high.
Not only was it sorted without bloodshed, Richard's and my list were exactly the same; and Diane's very nearly. Reading Diane and Richard's reports, I could see that we all agreed on the important points. We unhesitatingly awarded the prize to Elizabeth Chadwick's To Defy a King.
It was a very happy experience and the champagne reception at the Liberal Club where the prize was awarded was terrific, too!
Photos: Top: the judges: Diane, Elizabeth and Richard; centre: Jane Jackson and Elizabeth; bottom: Elizabeth and Elizabeth Chadwick