Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Could 'Wolf Hall' be historical fiction that works?

I’m chuffed Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker prize for her latest novel Wolf Hall. The book is described as a “Tudor corridors-of-power saga” that “turns the historical figure of Thomas Cromwell — Henry VIII's shadowy political fixer — into a compelling, complex literary hero.” It comes hard on the heels of the saucy television series The Tudors, high on of my list of must-watch television indulgences. In this show, everyone is gorgeous (and clean!), and even pious saint-to-be Sir Thomas More is a brooding hottie in a hair shirt and velvet breeches.

I haven’t read Wolf Hall yet, but it’s on my pile of books for the summer holidays. I know many historians find it painful to read historical novels, probably because the mantras we’ve learned about reliability of evidence and avoiding anachronism at all costs are so deeply ingrained. I’ve been interested in history since I was a child, and I’ve always enjoyed reading historical whodunits by the likes of Paul Doherty and Ellis Peters, but even I find I’m much more critical of historical fiction than I used to be.

That said, if anyone can make this work, Mantel can. She has long been one of my favourite authors, with an incredible ability to really get inside your head and make you experience being her characters. In my opinion, Beyond Black is her best book It’s about a psychic who is stalked by abusive ghosts from her childhood as she works the seedy pubs and halls of a bleakly suburban post-Thatcher England, and it manages to be poignant, funny and terrifying all at the same time. Beyond Black is one of those rare stories that linger and haunt you long after you’ve turned the last page.

But much as I love Mantel’s writing, I was more than a bit peeved by this weird opinion piece, in which she sets up a false comparison between historians and historical novelists. She obviously has little respect for and less understanding of what historians actually do and how they work, saying:
“The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it. The most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator; he brings to the enterprise the biases of his training and the vagaries of his personal temperament, and he is often obliged, in order to make his name, to murder his forefathers by coming up with a different take on events from the one that held sway when he himself learned the discipline; he must make the old new, because his department's academic standing depends on it.”
This makes the historical profession sound like it’s nothing more than the idiosyncratic pursuit of personal follies and academic rivalries. The way Mantel puts it, writing history is basically the same as writing fiction, though perhaps with a bit more focus on the collection of dull old ‘facts’ and less conjecture about people’s personal feelings.

I can understand that Mantel is probably fed up to the back teeth with pedantic critics pointing out errors or distortions of fact in her novels. But seriously folks, there's a whole lot more to writing history than this!


Academic, Hopeful said...

Nice post! Will put it on my summer reading list. You're right about Mantel's defensive comments - a counter argument rather than accurate description.

Bavardess said...

Once I get a chance to read Wolf Hall (after exams at the end of this month, I hope!), I will report back.
Maybe Hilary Mantel is suffering a bit of post-Booker madness?