Q & A with the Wolfson History Prize's newest judge, Professor Carole Hillenbrand

Q & A with the Wolfson History Prize's newest judge, Professor Carole Hillenbrand

May 2018

We asked Professor Carole Hillenbrand (Professor Emerita of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh and Professorial Fellow of Islamic History at the University of St Andrews), newest judge of the Wolfson History Prize, some questions about presiding on the judging panel of this prestigious prize.


Q. This is your first year as a judge for the Wolfson History Prize. How have you found the judging process so far? 

A. It took me a bit of time to get into my stride - the prospect of commenting on 100 books was daunting, to say the least. There is no point in saying to yourself: “But this isn’t my field.” Of course it isn’t. That’s the whole point. You’re in the very same place as the potential buyer, who is willing to be interested but needs that little extra push to put up the cash. Before long I was finding that the sheer range of topics makes the task exhilarating. You really do come to each book with a clean slate. But this also means that the author of each book has to catch your interest quickly. And that is where good writing in clear, plain, accessible English, uninfected by jargon, comes into its own. Clear thinking and clear writing often go together, just as their opposites do. All the books on my short list were well written. Their authors had taken a lot of trouble to make sure of that.

Q. The shortlist covers a wide range of subjects, spanning a variety of time and places. How difficult a job was it to bring the list down to just six titles?

A. This competition was for books published in 2017, so that was a year with some resonance for books on the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Reformation of 1517, and the First World War. So that made it easier to compare like with like in some cases. But for the most part the topics are very diverse. You develop an instinct for what works for you in a book, and you have to go with that, never mind that it is a matter of personal preference. That has the advantage of putting no book out of consideration simply because of its subject matter. That said, there are books whose subject matter in the grand scheme of things is trivial, or which are more gossipy than enlightening. The real find is the book that, on the face of it, seems to be about something minor - but then the author’s passion for the subject persuades you otherwise. The books in this competition are all history books, and at least one purpose of a history book should be to bring the past alive and make it relevant to us. Some writers can do that to truly startling effect. In the short term they can achieve it via the well-chosen anecdote or quotation, but in the long term there is no short cut; it demands mastery of a substantial body of primary source material. Authors who work only from secondary sources produce a different kind of book, one that is very rarely compelling. A prize-winning book is likely to be more of a marathon than a sprint. To change the metaphor, it is like the iceberg, for most of its mass is out of sight.  So it is not a matter of whether the book is long or relatively short. A long list of about 30 books almost selects itself. That is where the real difficulties begin; that is when you have to dig deep. Turning the long list into a short list demands much more reading, and that is when the differences between these fine books begin to emerge.

Q. The shortlist shines a light on two first-time authors: Lindsey Fitzharris and Miranda Kaufmann. How important is it, in your opinion, for a prize like the Wolfson History Prize to give visibility to new writers like this?

A. It should go without saying that it is entirely healthy that unknown authors show up among the Wolfson prize-winners. And there are several roads to that success. One is to choose a subject that, while known to specialists, has not previously been tackled in serious fashion, and whose intrinsic importance has been overlooked. Others are to unearth a treasure trove of unexploited material and thereby challenge conventional wisdom, or to resurrect a charismatic personality, or to train a searchlight on forgotten but vital aspects of daily life centuries ago, or to uncover unlooked-for and indeed counter-intuitive connections between people, events and places and thereby enable us to see the past in exciting new ways. In all of these endeavours, it is impossible to underestimate how far a combination of vision and intense commitment can take you, never mind whether you are young or old, famous or unknown. There is always new talent on the block, and the terms of the Wolfson competition make it possible for the judges to reward it.

Q. The Prize recognises and celebrates books which combine excellence in historical research with readability for a general audience. How challenging is it to achieve that balance, would you say?

A. Many would argue that comparing a book on ancient Rome with one on Victorian England is to compare apples with bananas, and is thus an undertaking flawed from the outset. I challenge that view. The cultivated but non-specialist readers that such books target are, I believe, members of a commonwealth of the intellect who would say with Terence (d.159 BC)  that nothing human is alien to them. So they are ready to be surprised, to be led down untrodden paths, to revisit the familiar from an unexpected direction. It takes only a twist of the kaleidoscope for the patterns to reassemble themselves in a totally new way. But gradually you come to realise that it is never enough for a book to be a solid, reliable account of the subject under scrutiny. It also has to be readable. So style is not an optional extra. You have to want to turn the page. A well-constructed narrative helps a lot, but even so the reading process itself has to be pleasurable.  So I put a premium on authors whose care for words results in a clear but elegant English style. Writers should never forget their readers.

Q. What book is currently on your own bedside table?

A. Excluded Books of the New Testament, trans.J.B.Lightfoot et al.,London, 1927.  

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Educated at Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh, Carole Hillenbrand has been Professor Emerita of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh since 2008 and Professorial Fellow of Islamic History at the University of St Andrews since 2013. She has held Visiting Fellowships in America and the Netherlands. She was awarded an Honorary Life Fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford in 2010 and a Corresponding Fellowship of the Medieval Academy of America in 2012. She was the first non-Muslim and the first woman to receive the King Faisal International Prize in Islamic Studies in 2005 and was awarded the British Academy/Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding in 2016.