David Robinson: Historical fiction was born here, and the world is richer for it

ONE night at the battle of Passchendaele in the First World War, my grandfather found himself trapped in a graveyard as German artillery shells burst around him. In his diary, he didn't describe what that felt like. All he wrote was: "You can imagine our distress."

For years, the history books would have left such distress resolutely unimagined. It wasn't part of the official record. Soldiers returning from the trenches didn't talk about such things. It was a different, altogether more reticent age.

With historical fiction, it's a different matter. Novelists such as Sebastian Faulks, Sebastian Barry and Pat Barker can look back on the past and imagine such distress – as well, of course, as a whole range of other emotions – very well indeed.

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Provided they stick to the facts, one could even make the case that the historical novelist actually opens up the past – making us realise that the people who lived then had thoughts and feelings every bit as real as our own – even more than the historian.

Occasionally, historians and critics alike can be somewhat sniffy about such claims. But just as we have become more aware of the limits of history in conveying a true sense of the lived past, so we have also become more aware of the potential of historical fiction – and 12 out of the 40 Booker-winning novels fall into this category – to do just that.

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, for example, may not have won the Costa Prize last night, but few would cavil about the emotional accuracy of his depiction of either the Irish emigrant experience in the US in the 1950s or the economically depressed Ireland his heroine left behind.

Though Toibin may not think of himself as a historical novelist, his portrait of the interior life of novelist Henry James in The Master was every bit as nuanced as Hilary Mantel's Man Booker-winning portrayal of Henry VIII's political fixer-in-chief Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.

The best historical novelists share this transformative ability to bring characters from the past to full, pulsating life on the page. It is only right that there should be, at long last, a literary prize to celebrate their achievements.

It's only fitting too that this should happen not in London, but in Scotland, and not just anywhere in Scotland but in the Borders, at Abbotsford.

Because it is here that historical fiction began, with the man the Walter Scott Prize is named after. And here that, if anywhere, it should most feel at home.