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The Georgette Heyer Historical Fiction Prize

Georgette Heyer and Misty Dawn
Georgette Heyer (the wolfhound, Misty Dawn, is not the prize).
Photograph from the Georgette Heyer Estate, via the Guardian.

Something else I've learned this week - the existence of "The Georgette Heyer Historical Fiction Prize". This was proudly emblazoned on the spine of Zemindar, which I promptly bought for £2. See, awards do sell books!

Sponsored by Corgi Books and The Bodley Head, the Georgette Heyer Historical Fiction Prize ran from 1978 to 1989. It was for discovering "new talent in historical fiction writing" - and not solely Heyer's stomping ground of the Regency period, as shown by the list of winners below. 

1978 - Gallows Wedding by Rhona Martin

1979 - The Day of the Butterfly by Norah Lofts

1980 - Children of Hachiman by Lynn Guest

1981 - Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald

1982 - No award? 

1983 - Queen of the Lightning by Kathleen Herbert

1984 - The Terioki Crossing by Alan Fisher

1985 - Legacy by Susan Kay

1986 - The Cage by Michael Weston

1987 - I am England by Patricia Wright

1988 - Trust and Treason by Margaret Birkhead

1989 - A Fallen Land by Janet Broomfield

The list of winners on Goodreads is particularly useful, and enlightening. Especially if, like me, you really like to overthink awards.

One thing that becomes immediately apparently: of the 11 winners, only two have any sort of objective popularity - more than 1,000 ratings on Goodreads. By contrast, three have no ratings at all, and 8 of the 11 winners sit well under 100. That's pretty low for a collection of 'prize winners'.

Given the prize's goal is to showcase new talent, does this somehow make it a failure?


First, the major mitigating factor - the way we're measuring success. Goodreads, although a handy way of judging the relative popularity of new releases, is pretty rubbish for anything in the past. And for early 1980s fiction, we're talking about books that were released before the average GR user was born (weeps). 

Second, the winners of the prize were all debuts. The better judgement of whether or not the prize successfully identified new talent would be to measure the ratings of future books by the same authors. Perhaps more notably: 10 of the 11 authors all went on to publish more books, and at least two (Norah Lofts, Susan Kay) went to become best-selling authors.

And third, even if we take all of the above at face value: 2/11 ain't bad. As far as an unheralded prize in a pre-social media era, for a niche subgenre, the fact that, 30 years on, two of these debuts have over 1,000 ratings... that's pretty solid work.   

I think that we (as the more involved sort of reader - as well as publishers, authors, etc) operate under the assumption that prizes are far more significant than they are. They are, as I like to harp on about, recommendations. Perhaps more thoroughly-deliberated recommendations than your average Amazon review, but recommendations nonetheless. A batting average of .181 may be under the Mendoza Line, but, as far as predicting quality goes - and under this paticular set of circumstances - I think that's pretty impressive.

There's a great article about the prize on Reading the Pastwhere Sarah Johnson has done a terrific job of piecing together the award's history.

For what it is worth, Heyer is currently published by Arrow and William Heinemann, both part of Cornerstone, which is part of Penguin Random House. So if someone wanted to continue the charming (and possibly successful) legacy of the Georgette Heyer Prize, that might be where to start. Hint. Hint.