Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Hilary Mantel and Historical Fiction

I recently read with great interest Hilary Mantel’s first Reith Lecture reproduced in the Guardian Review

This is an engaging ‘justification’, if such a thing is necessary, thanks to Hilary Mantel’s literary triumphs, for the genre of historical fiction. Through her account of how she relates to the lives of her own forbears and how she works to create a sense of the living, breathing people of the past, she shows how the work of a writer who chooses to write fiction can present a legitimate interpretation of history.

Dealing with the contentious relationship between academic historians and novelists, she maintains that their work is in fact quite similar. An historical novelist is just as concerned as an historian in investigating the verifiable facts of past events and the actions of those who are dead, but the novelist adds an extra dimension, the imagined interior lives of characters. Some people are troubled, however, by the ‘misleading’ nature of ‘fictionalised’ history and are concerned about how ‘the truth’ is represented or perhaps misrepresented. As Hilary Mantel points out though, serious historical novelists research as fully as biographers and most historians present more than the bald facts and information. Both provide interpretations of the tangible records of the past as the only evidence available. As Mantel explains:

The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts.

Both ‘trades’ tell stories, although the reader in choosing to read a novel knows that she is encountering a subjective interpretation of a period and/or events from the past. For Hilary Mantel, the work of the novelist and the historian are complementary, rather than rival ways of looking at history. Interestingly, the words in French ‘histoire’ and the German ‘Geschichte’ mean both ‘story’ and ‘history’.

Another item about historical fiction caught my eye recently, a report of a talk by John Guy at the Hay Festival in which he expressed his concern that students were treating material in novels such as Wolf Hall as ‘fact’.

It seems odd to me that anyone would seek to derive their ‘knowledge’ of historical events purely from fictionalised accounts. Students studying history as an academic pursuit and professional historians should surely be clear about the provenance of the material they are reading and treat all sources with the rigorous scrutiny applied in their fields.

I am one of the ‘cringing’ writers of historical fiction, referred to on another occasion by Hilary Mantel, who like to include a bibliography. I would defend this, as others have done:
My reason for including a bibliography is as an invitation to readers to explore their interests further and to seek out other interpretations of the period and events in the novel they have just read.

I look forward to listening to the Reith Lectures but think it likely that the controversies around history and historical fiction will continue to thrive!