The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction shortlist 2021

The shortlist for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been announced!

The judges said of the shortlist: ‘For the first time in the history of the Walter Scott Prize, Australian authors comprise the majority of our shortlist. With imaginations and styles as varied as they are inspired, we have Pip Williams slipping us gently, hauntingly, into the Oxford English Dictionary; Steven Conte’s unflinching weaving of war and peace in the shadows of Tolstoy’s estate; and Kate Grenville expertly stitching the unreliable but compelling testimony of the remarkable Elizabeth Macarthur into an exploration of the meaning of home. And as if this wasn’t riches enough, we are launched so vividly into Tudor England with Hilary Mantel and Maggie O’Farrell that we live and die – what a death! – with Cromwell, and die and live, through a heart-crunching transformation, with Shakespeare’s son Hamnet.

In short, the 2021 Walter Scott Prize shortlist isn’t just a masterclass in writing, it offers readers five experiences they’re unlikely to forget.’

Below are the five shortlisted books for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize.


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The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

In the first year of the doomed German invasion of Russia in WWII, a German military doctor, Paul Bauer, is assigned to establish a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana - the former grand estate of Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of the classic War and Peace. There he encounters a hostile aristocratic Russian woman, Katerina Trusbetzkaya, a writer who has been left in charge of the estate. But even as a tentative friendship develops between them, Bauer’s hostile and arrogant commanding officer, Julius Metz, starts becoming steadily more preoccupied and unhinged as the war turns against the Germans. Over the course of six weeks, in the terrible winter of 1941, everything starts to unravel…


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A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

What if Elizabeth Macarthur - wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in early Sydney - had written a shockingly frank secret memoir? Grenville’s Elizabeth Macarthur is a passionate woman managing her complicated life-marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her own heart, the search for power in a society that gave her none-with spirit, cunning and sly wit. Her memoir reveals the dark underbelly of the polite world of Jane Austen. It explodes the stereotype of the women of the past: devoted and docile, accepting of their narrow choices. That was their public face-here’s what one of them really thought.

At the centre of this book is one of the most toxic issues of our times: the seductive appeal of false stories. Beneath the surface of Elizabeth Macarthur’s life and the violent colonial world she navigated are secrets and lies with the dangerous power to shape reality.


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The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?


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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.


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The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

In 1901, the word ‘Bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it. Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary … Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape the world and our experience of it.


With a total value of £30,000, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is unique for rewarding writing of exceptional quality which is set in the past. The winner will be announced later this year on a date still to be confirmed.

Find out more about the Prize here.

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The Tolstoy Estate

The Tolstoy Estate

Steven Conte

$32.99Buy now

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