27 September 2012

Today's HNS Conference Guest Richard Lee

The Founder and Mainstay of the
 Historical Novel Society 

Richard founded the Historical Novel Society in 1997 after trying to join it, only to find it didn’t exist. The society has since developed in many unforeseen ways, following the enthusiasms of the active membership, with Richard trying to keep as light a hand on the tiller as possible. It is with bemusement but great pride that he regards the society’s robust health fifteen years on.

So please welcome Richard for this the last Conference Guest post:

Some people are born into history. Royalty, people of eminent family, prodigies: some begin and simply continue in the spotlight. I do not find these kinds of people as interesting as those who begin in normality, and then change because of some conspicuous event. These are the people I would most like to meet – but to meet them before their lives changed. The poet Thomas Gray memorably wrote about the kind of talent that any country churchyard can boast: ‘Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.’ But if we were to meet great people before they were great – at a dinner party, say – would we recognise the qualities that might soon shine?
In serious-mode I would probably invite a truly fearsome and terrifying group of soon-to-be extraordinary guests. Jesus, before he decides to teach those things that he has already seen in his heart; Michelangelo, before his hands have found that remarkable feel for marble; Shakespeare sharpening his quill to write a first jobbing play. I think you can guess the sort of list, and why I would choose it. When faced by somebody complete in themselves they become removed. They have a confidence that may suffer cruel doubt, but which is never the same doubt that people feel before achievement. I think that would be exciting – and wouldn’t it be difficult (supposing we believe in this time-travel ability) not to try to tell them how things will work out for them?

Richard's Banquet Guests

But this is not serious-mode. Also, I feel that as someone who so vocally loves historical fiction (as opposed to fact), my choices really have to be fictional ones. So here they are...

Dr Iannis (from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)

You need someone who loves talk, who loves ideas, and who thinks that the table is a fine and appropriate place to spend your life (the last thing you want is action heroes who will bore you about their exploits!). Dr Iannis is a dinner guest par excellence: someone to stay up late into the night with, drinking some ghastly syrupy Greek drink with an illegible label, discussing whatever next comes into your head.

Elizabeth Bennett (from Pride and Prejudice)

I would love to meet Elizabeth (of course) at the height of her attractions as she is in Austen’s most sparkling novel. I’d also be intrigued to know how she copes with her change of status, and if love stays alive for her. Perhaps when she has a thirteen year old daughter herself, and is struggling to guide her? 

She would still be a charming and attractive guest, but not so arch, and not so willing to be impressed by the Wickham type (I hope).

Sophia Weston (from Tom Jones)

I think Sophia might have become tiresome as Tom’s wife, but she has real fire as the trapped (but loyal) daughter of Squire Weston – and equally loyal sweetheart of the frequently wayward Tom. Married man though I am, I would nevertheless invite her at exactly the age she is as she takes to the road in the novel, and I would insist she wore her muff to and from the dinner.

Porthos (from Les Trois Mousquetaires)

A sadder, wiser Porthos would be best, I think. You don’t want too much boasting around the table. In his early days Porthos would have been too French, too flamboyant, too much the bon viveur. I imagine him gouty and a little haggard in later life – like the older Fielding – but probably the better company for it. And in later life he might leave some of the food for the other guests

Stephen Maturin (from Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series)

Stephen would be good company at any age, if on form. You wouldn’t want to catch him in one of his morose phases, or too intoxicated, and you would definitely have to avoid his touchy subjects or risk fighting a duel. It might also be an idea to have him visit a bathhouse before the event. He is one of those kinds of people whose happy intellect is particularly interesting on any subject that they do not know much about.

Rebecca (from Ivanhoe)

What happens to Rebecca after the book is finished? I’m not the only person to wonder: Thackeray wrote a spoof sequel. But Scott’s Rebecca is much more intriguing than Thackeray’s. In truth I have no idea how she would deport herself at a dinner party, and she might be utterly demure – but I expect that even silent she would be an adornment: she is exactly the sort of person that men imagine a character for, which can be more potent than a real character.

Harry Flashman (from George Macdonald Fraser’s eponymous series)

Probably a very bad choice, but in the right context I think Harry might be fun. Maybe we should not invite him to the dinner, but just to port and billiards afterwards? Certainly any of the women I have invited would see straight through him, and his manly mutton chops will almost certainly get resoundingly slapped at various stages of the evening.

Amy Dorrit (Little Dorrit)

Dickens indubitably had a thing about the sort of girl-woman who looks like a child but takes on all the responsibility and cares of mother and matron. Amy Dorrit, for me, was his best evocation of this. I would want her at dinner because she deserves to be at an entertaining dinner, and because she’d be too self-effacing, too modest to push herself forward. She’d also be just the person to have on hand if I had ‘dined too well’ and started letting the wine talk for me. She would lead me quietly away without slighting me or making me realise in any way what a fool I’d made of myself.

Merlin (The Crystal Cave)

We have a table full of beauties, topers, philosophers and scientists – and I do not know if someone more spiritual would fit in. Perhaps not. Though Merlin was used enough to soldiers’ revels, and latterly quite able to make a fool of himself over a pretty face. Merlin wouldn’t say much at table, but if it was the sort of event where you could also take a stroll around the gardens, I think he’d be worth talking to under the stars. Every event needs an outside-looking-in character.

A bit about the HNS - 
the Society that Richard founded:

"We are a literary society devoted to promoting the enjoyment of historical fiction. We are based in the USA and the UK but we welcome members (who can be readers or writers) from all round the world. Through our print magazines, conferences, website, social media and through the dynamism of our membership we help bring the excitement of these novels to the widest audience. Find out about joining us..."

The HNS was founded in the UK in 1997. At first it was conceived of as something of a campaigning society, because historical fiction was in the doldrums then. Or at least that was the perception. Our magazine Solander aimed at trying to alter that perception amongst authors and publishers. Quickly a second magazine was conceived, the Historical Novels Review, because we found our members enjoyed reviewing, and publishers and authors appreciated the feedback. In time we began to realise that the sheer scale of the review magazine was the best argument you could make for the strength of the genre. We also realised that our reviews could grow to be the best and most complete guide to the genre, and that there was a unique value in that.

Over the last 15 years we have become very much an international society. We aim to review all US and UK mainstream published titles, and as many other English language books as we can. Ideally we would also love to cover foreign language titles.

We also run competitions to discover new authors, conferences bringing authors and readers together, and maintain internet groups and lists. This website is our latest project and the hub of our activities: a home, we hope, for historical fiction enthusiasts wherever you live.

We are an entirely open membership – no-one has ever had to jump through hoops to join. If you enjoy historical fiction of whatever kind and for whatever reason, you’re welcome.

We are also an open organisation in terms of who can participate in society activities – our writing, editing or social events. Obviously these things need a structure, and so we have society officials, but the way to be an official is simply to volunteer. Everything we achieve is done through the unpaid voluntary work of enthusiasts – and new people can get involved at any time.

If you love historical novels, please join us, and help us make a noise about them.

This is the last Conference Guest Post 
I do hope everyone has enjoyed reading the interesting and inspirational items
 Thank you to all for taking part either as guests or readers.


  1. I loved reading all the HNS interviews here, Helen, and I look forward to meeting them face to face at the conference this weekend. Thanks for this entertaining series!

  2. I'd love to sit with Maturin too, but like you, I'd hope he had spent some time at the bathhouse first (and had had his coffee, for all love).

    Thank you, Richard for all you do and all you've done. I'm so grateful for HNS, as a reader and a writer.

    And thank you, Helen, for hosting these posts! They've been so interesting. I hope everyone, once they've recovered from HNS '12, will consider coming to HNS '13 in Florida!

  3. Thank you Julie - what kind words, much appreciated!

  4. Great choices of characters, Richard! Another terrific interview.


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