In a recent talk at the Hay literary festival, Cambridge historian and biographer John Guy said he had seen an increasing number of prospective students citing Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, as supporting evidence for their knowledge of Tudor history.
Guy suggested that Mantel’s as yet incomplete trilogy on Thomas Cromwell’s life and career – the third instalment, The Mirror and the Light, comes out later this year – has become something of a resource for a number of budding history undergraduates, despite the fact that they contain historical inaccuracies (casting, for example, Thomas More as a woman-hating tyrant, Anne Boleyn as a female devil and getting the wrong sheriff of London to lead More to his execution).
The Guardian quotes Guy as saying that this “blur between fact and fiction is troubling”. In fact, Guy’s comments on the blurring of fact and fiction, and related concerns of authenticity, do read as a worrying prognosis. In the age of Trump and fake news, it seems particularly important that we call bullshit on so-called “alternative facts” and place an unquestionable fix on fiction.
Yet historical fiction, in all its varieties, can and frequently does raise vital questions about how we write, and conceptualise, historical processes. Indeed, when writers of historical fiction make stuff up about the past, they sometimes do so in an effort to sharpen, rather than dull, our capacities to separate fact from fiction.
‘There are no endings’
In the first of five Reith Lectures to be aired on BBC Radio 4, Mantel similarly argues that in death “we enter into fiction” and the lives of the dead are given shape and meaning by the living – whether that be the historian or the historical novelist. As the narrator of Bring up the Bodies puts it: “There are no endings.” Endings are, instead, “all beginnings”, the foundation of interpretative acts.
In Mantel’s view, the past is not something we passively consume, either, but that which we actively “create” in each act of remembrance. That’s not to say, of course, that Mantel is arguing that there are no historical “facts” or that the past didn’t happen. Rather, she reminds us that the evidence we use to give narrative shape to the past is “always partial”, and often “incomplete”. “Facts are not truth”, Mantel argues, but “the record of what’s left on the record.” It is up to the living to interpret, or, indeed, misinterpret, those accounts.
In this respect the writer of historical fiction is not working in direct opposition to the professional historian: both must think creatively about what remains, deploying – especially when faced with gaps and silences in the archive – “selection, elision, artful arrangement”, literary manoeuvres more closely associated with novelist Philippa Gregory than with Guy the historian. However, exceptional examples from both fields should, claims Mantel, be “self-questioning” and always willing to undermine their own claims to authenticity.
Mantel’s own theorising of history writing shares much with that other great Tudor storyteller: William Shakespeare.
While Shakespeare’s Richard III (1592), can be read as a towering achievement in historical propaganda – casting Richard, the last of the Plantagenets, as an evil usurper, and Richmond, first Tudor king and Elizabeth I’s grandfather, as prophetic saviour – the play invites serious speculation about the idiosyncratic nature of historical truth.
Take this exchange in Act II Scene IV of the play, which comes just before the doomed young princes are led to the tower. Here, the younger of the two, Richard, duke of York, asks his grandmother, the duchess of York, about stories he’s heard about his uncle’s birth:
York: Marry, they say my uncle grew so fast
That he could gnaw a crust at two hours old … Duchess of York: I pray thee, pretty York, who told thee this?
York: Grandam, his nurse.
Duchess of York: His nurse? Why, she was dead ere thou wast born.
York: If ’twere not she, I cannot tell who told me.
Fresh in the knowledge that his uncle’s nurse died before he was born, the boy has no idea who told him the story of his uncle’s gnashing baby teeth. Has he misremembered his source, blurring the lines between fact and fiction? Was the boy’s uncle born a monster, or is that a convenient fiction his enemies might wish to tell themselves? And why on earth would Shakespeare bother to include this digression?
In all other respects, Richard III invites straightforward historical divisions between good (the Tudors) and evil (the Plantagenet dynasty). But here, subversive doubts creep in about the provenance of the stories we tell about real historical people, with the “historical fact” briefly revealed as a messy, fallible concept, always on the edge of make-believe.
Richard III reminds us that historical facts can be fictionalised, but also that the fictional can just as easily turn into fact. Mantel’s Tudor cycle has been haunted by similar anxieties. In the often terrifying world of Henry VIII’s court, her novels show how paranoia breeds rumour, how rumour bleeds into and shapes fact and, as a result, “how difficult it is to get at the truth”. History isn’t just a different country for Mantel, it’s something intimately tied to the fictions we cling to.
And indeed in Wolf Hall that blurred relationship between fact and fiction, history and myth, is often front and centre. In Wolf Hall the past is somewhere above, between, and below the official record. History is not to be found in “coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions.” Instead it’s in “a woman’s sigh”, or the smell she “leaves on the air”, a “hand pulling close the bed curtain”; all those things that are crucially absent from the archive.
The fact of history’s ephemerality opens a “gap” for the fictional, into which we “pour [our] fears, fantasies, desires”. As Mantel has asked elsewhere: “Is there a firm divide between myth and history, fiction and fact: or do we move back and forth on a line between, our position indeterminate and always shifting?”
For the Canadian novelist, Guy Gavriel Kay, fantasy is a necessary precondition of all forms of historical writing: “When we work with distant history, to a very great degree, we are all guessing.”
This is why Kay is at leave to employ the conventions of fantasy to deal with the past, transposing real historical events, peoples, and places – medieval Spain and Roderigo Diaz (El Cid) in The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), for example, or the Viking invasions of Britain in The Last Light of the Sun (2004) – into the realm of the fantastical.
Kay researches (he provides bibliographies in all his books) and then unravels history and historical evidence, putting a “quarter turn” on the assumed facts: renaming historical figures, reversing and collapsing the order of known events, substituting invented religions for real ones, introducing magic into the history of Renaissance Europe, or China. He has described the result of this process as “near-history”: alternative pasts that are at once radically strange and weirdly familiar.
Like Mantel, Kay’s (near-)historical fictions can be read as less an effort to evade the blur between fact and fiction than to honestly point towards that blur as a condition of history itself. After all, history is debatable and often impossible to verify. It’s a reminder, perhaps, that we sometimes need the tropes of fiction to smooth over those complexities, or render them legible, truthful, in the contemporary moment. We need metaphors, and similes, so that the dead can speak and act, live and die.