‘The moment we are deceased we become the subject of stories.’ So says the magnificent Hilary Mantel.
When I heard that Hilary Mantel had been chosen to give the Reith Lectures, I feared I would not get to hear them. But once again I must bow down before the supremacy of the interwebs making this world a little bit smaller every day.
In the lectures, Hilary Mantel is discussing the past and how we come to know it – or think we know it. Is this a case of history vs historical fiction? Are the different approaches at odds with each other, or can they be complementary? Her lectures so far definitely address the tensions between writing history and writing fiction based in the past; I cannot anticipate where the next lectures are going to lead us. So far, there have been some lovely, illustrative comments about making things up and wallpaper in the Napoleonic era.
The Booker Prize winning novels ‘Wolf Hall’ (2009) and ‘Bring Up the Dead’ (2012) are obviously the focus of some attention, being both meticulously researched and extraordinarily imagined novels about the Tudor era. This is an era we think we already know intimately. Henry VIII and his six wives anyone?
We all know the facts, but these novels take us beyond any imagined comfort zone of history. The chapters leading up to the fate of Anne Boleyn are astounding, to use only one example. Surely Anne Boleyn is not going to lose her head, they can’t do this, this is not… Of course Henry VIII goes through with it. As if a historical novelist can change history…
I first read Mantel when ‘Every Day is Mother’s Day’ (1985) and ‘Vacant Possession’ (1986) were published. Black, satirical, sharp, these novels did not prepare me for the scope and intensity of her later historical fiction. Her genius is her way into the familiar Tudor story using Thomas Cromwell as central character. And making us care.
The tensions between the academic and the creative are the stuff of many dinner conversations, with my family of historians, writers and the generally curious around the table. We are collectively listening and allowing that Mantel is more articulate than we ever were.
The lectures are something to keep us occupied as we wait for the third of her Thomas Cromwell novels, ‘The Mirror and the Light.’ I’m hoping it will appear before I become a story myself.
The image is of wallpaper from sometime between 1780-1790, now at the Smithsonian Design Museum.