Book worm

WHAT would Sir Walter Scott have made of the shortlist, announced this week, for the inaugural £25,000 prize for historical fiction named after him?

Clearly he would have welcomed it, and thanked the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch for putting up the 25,000 prize, but who would he have picked as the winner?

Perhaps the biggest clue lies in entry he wrote in his Journal for 14 March 1826, when he was writing about Jane Austen. She, he noted, described the "involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life" better than any other writer. "The Big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going," he added, "but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me."

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The shortlisted books mix Big Bow-Wow (historical sweep, plot) and Exquisite Touch to various degrees. Here, with the help of Stuart Kelly, whose book Scottland, about Scott's cultural legacy, is published in July, is what the Abbotsford sage might have made of them.

Lustrum, by Robert Harris: Pure Bow-Wow, and Scott would have loved the intensity with which he describes ancient Rome's politics. Although he never wrote about this, his son-in-law did (Lockhart's Valerius).

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel: Ditto about the politics, although arguably more Exquisite Touches.

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant: High Exquisite Touch count, low Big Bow-Wow score in this story set in a convent in Renaissance Italy.

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer: High scores in both categories for this story of Jewish Czech industrialist in the Nazi era. Scott's Journal has flashes of anti-semitism, but Ivanhoe's Rebecca is one of the first positive depictions of Jews in British fiction.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Walters: Ghost story set in the aftermath of the Second World War is high on Exquisite Touches, low on Big Bow-Wow. Scott never wrote convincingly about the supernatural: The Monastery, in which a ghost figures more prominently than in his other novels was, he acknowledged, "a pronounced failure".

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The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds. Again, more Exquisite Touches than Big Bow-Wow in this story of poet John Clare's insanity. Clare had been slightly sneering about Scott's own popularity: would Scott have borne a grudge?

Stone's Fall, by Ian Pears: This is pure Bow-Wow, a Balzacian tale about a Victorian arms manufacturer. A great read, but nothing Austenish about it.

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Hodd, by Adam Thorpe: Perhaps the most Scott-like of all shortlisted novels, not least in being based on a fake manuscript. Big Bow-Wow in abundance in this story of the "real" Robin Hood but some Exquisite Touches too. And Scott played his own part in the Hood myth too – in Ivanhoe, his Robin of Locksley wins an archery contest by splitting an arrow on the bull's eye, a scene you'll see in almost every Robin Hood film going.

Whatever Scott may have thought about the shortlist, the winner will be announced in Melrose on 19 June.