The HFRN 2019 Conference

As Twitter followers will be aware, I spent a couple of days in Manchester last week attending the Historical Fiction Research Network Annual Conference. This is a brief report of what went down.

First of all, what is HFRN? Well, it is a network for people interested in historical fiction. It welcomes authors, historians, and academics who study historical fiction. I think I kind of qualify on all three.

HFRN is currently run by Farah Mendlesohn, which means it is ferociously efficient, and also very friendly to people with special access needs, and special dietary needs. Kudos this year is also due to Jerome de Groot who secured Manchester Central Library as the venue. It is a spectacular building, and perfectly located right on St. Peter’s Square. Given that this year is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, which took place in that very square, the venue was entirely appropriate, as was the conference’s focus on themes of resistance and rebellion.

Attendees came in a wide range of countries. There were Americans, Australians and people from all over Europe. I got in on the Thursday night and spent the evening chatting to a couple of academics from Stockholm.

Friday began with a keynote speech from Josie Gill of Bristol University. Josie has been engaged in a project called Literary Archaeology that brought together archaeologists and creative writers to explore the lived enviromnent of African slaves in the West Indies. Some of the writers involved included my friend Edson Burton, and the brilliant poet, Vanessa Kisuule.

Interestingly Josie’s talk reminded me a lot of the issues involved in doing trans history. Some slaves did leave behind narratives, but their freedom to write about their lives was generally heavily constrained by the fact that they could only be published by white-run publishers, and for a white audience. Their output therefore tended to be tailored to the white gaze, in much the same way that trans memoirs have been tailored to the cis gaze. One of the goals of the project was to try to free slave narratives from those strictures.

Later that morning I got to chair a panel that included a paper by Jonathon Ball, a young man from New South Wales whose research is on the use of historical fiction in LGBT activism. As you can imagine, this was right up my street. My apologies to Jonathon and the rest of the audience if I somewhat monopolised discussion.

Also on Friday I heard a paper by two friends from Latrobe University in Melbourne. Catherine Padmore and Kelly Gardiner were talking about fictionalised biographies written by Australian writers. One of those was Half Wild, a book about the life of the Australian trans man, Harry Crawford, written by Pip Smith.

Given the current atmosphere surrounding trans issues, and the obvious opportunities for mischief-making (Crawford was convicted of murdering his wife) I feared the worst. However, it sounds from what Catherine and Kelly tell me that Smith has done a decent job. I will be interested to hear what any trans men who have read the book think of it.

I gave my paper on Saturday morning. It was a new version of my steampunk talk, updated to include the brilliant P Djeli Clark. The slides are available on

In the same session was a paper by Nic Clear from Newcastle University about Le Corbusier as a science fiction writer. I know next to nothing about architecture, but the idea that avant garde city designers are in fact writing science fiction makes a lot of sense to me.

Possibly my favorite paper of the weekend was Blair Apgar talking about the amazing Matilda di Canossa. This woman lived in Tuscany in the 11th Century. She ruled her own lands, had her own army, and was instrumental in forcing the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, to submit to the authority of Pope Gregory VII.

Matilda’s story was largely forgotten in later centuries, as often happens with women rulers. However, Pope Urban VIII grew up in the region of Italy that Matilda once ruled and was apparently taken with the local legend of the woman ruler. He had Matilda’s body kidnapped and taken to Rome where he had her re-buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. There’s a large statue by Bernini on her tomb.

I confess to having bunked off for much of Saturday afternoon to watch rugby. It was so worth it! Victories over the English are always welcome, but more so when they are unexpected.

Next year’s conference will be held in Salzburg. We are moving to Europe because of the uncertainly surrounding Brexit and in particular the difficulty that foreign academics find in getting visas to come to the UK. That will only get worse, probably much worse, after we leave the EU.