Hi­lary Man­tel on the se­crets of suc­cess­ful his­tor­i­cal fic­tion

Hi­lary Man­tel tells Rob At­tar about the chal­lenges of fic­tion­al­is­ing the past

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Hi­lary Man­tel

Why do you think his­tor­i­cal fic­tion has be­come such a pop­u­lar genre in re­cent years? I think what’s hap­pened is that it’s been lifted out of genre. His­tor­i­cal fic­tion used to be con­flated with ‘ his­tor­i­cal ro­mance’ and looked down on as cheap es­capism, even though some of the great­est nov­el­ists have set their fic­tions firmly in the past. War and Peace is a his­tor­i­cal novel, and no one ever sug­gested it was triv­ial.

In re­cent years, the form has been in­cor­po­rated into the lit­er­ary main­stream. And why not? It em­ploys all the tech­niques of other types of fic­tion and ex­ists at all lev­els of am­bi­tion. You can judge any in­di­vid­ual ex­am­ple as good or bad; what you can’t do, le­git­i­mately, is to place it in a sep­a­rate cat­e­gory, or gen­er­alise about the type of reader it at­tracts.

It’s be­come an en­tic­ingly un­pre­dictable way of de­scrib­ing hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

His­to­ri­ans are more friendly to the form than they used to be. They recog­nise the need to en­gage the pub­lic

How can his­tor­i­cal fic­tion add to our un­der­stand­ing of the past? It makes us turn our at­ten­tion to the 99.9 per cent of hu­man ac­tiv­ity that never made it on to the record – and which can only be re­cov­ered by the imag­i­na­tion. It can of­fer in­sight and new ways of think­ing about some of the puz­zles the past rep­re­sents. It can also send read­ers to his­tory texts, whet­ting their ap­petite to know more. Does his­tor­i­cal fic­tion need to be grounded in fact? If so, what room is there for the imag­i­na­tion? Dif­fer­ent types of his­tor­i­cal nov­els re­quire dif­fer­ent kinds of prepara­tory work, all of them in­ten­sive. Even if you sim­ply use the past as a back­drop, you need to be grounded in the cul­ture; you need to know about ev­ery­day life, how peo­ple think, what is the story they tell about them­selves and their world.

If you want to fore­ground real peo­ple as ac­tors in your story, you must know as much about them as a bi­og­ra­pher would, and then add value by tak­ing the story where the his­to­rian and bi­og­ra­pher can’t go: into the pri­vate as­pect of the in­di­vid­ual, the un­shown and un­show­able.

How­ever much you learn, fac­tu­ally, there is plenty of scope for imag­i­na­tion. You are al­lowed to spec­u­late, and to fill gaps, as long as you do it plau­si­bly. If you don’t want to pay at­ten­tion to plau­si­bil­ity, it is more hon­est to write some other kind of novel. The facts are not a con­straint; they are your raw ma­te­rial and your source of in­spi­ra­tion. Do au­thors of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to treat their sub­jects fairly, as their works of­ten shape pub­lic un­der­stand­ing? You must be fair – yes. Neu­tral – no. You can leave that to the his­to­rian. It’s per­mit­ted, if you’re deal­ing with real peo­ple, to pick your man or woman and get be­hind them. Es­sen­tially, you are mak­ing a case, it can be ar­gued. You are of­fer­ing a ver­sion; there will be other ver­sions. If you find all his­tor­i­cal per­sons and causes equally ap­peal­ing, and can view them all with dis­pas­sion, then you lack the fe­roc­ity of imag­i­na­tion re­quired to keep your reader en­ter­tained. Can you un­der­stand why some his­to­ri­ans dis­like his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and how would you counter their views? Per­haps they think we are par­a­sites and that we steal their sales. To be fair, I think his­to­ri­ans worry about the prospect of the pub­lic be­ing mis­led. And if a nov­el­ist is giv­ing fac­tual in­for­ma­tion, I think she shares the his­to­rian’s obli­ga­tion to be ac­cu­rate, to be up to date with re­search and to be aware of vari­ant ver­sions.

But read­ers know what they’re do­ing when they pick up a novel. They don’t blun­der into fic­tion by ac­ci­dent. They are able to work out, I think, what can be drawn from ev­i­dence, and what can’t. A nov­el­ist does not have ac­cess to pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion whis­pered be­hind the hand, nor to let­ters burned on re­ceipt, nor to the stream of con­scious­ness of long-dead men and women. If she of­fers these things to the reader, clearly there’s an el­e­ment of in­ven­tion.

And if the reader won­ders, “Is this true or made up?” and does a lit­tle in­ves­ti­ga­tion, isn’t that all to the good? One of the things a his­tor­i­cal novel can do is to prompt a reader to think about what we know, and what we could know – given luck and dili­gence – and what kind of things we can never know.

In gen­eral, his­to­ri­ans are more friendly to the form than they used to be. They recog­nise the need to en­gage the pub­lic and that our ef­forts are com­ple­men­tary, and that some as­pects of our trade are the same. All nar­ra­tives de­pend on shap­ing, se­lec­tion and em­pha­sis. They have to hold their au­di­ence by pace and style. These virtues are in­trin­sic to good com­mu­ni­ca­tion – they are not op­tional ex­tras. The nar­ra­tive his­to­rian will wres­tle with com­plex­ity: how to sim­plify without dis­tort­ing and how to fore­ground what seems to him im­por­tant, without slight­ing other fac­tors. He wants to tell the truth, but it can’t be the whole truth; his book can­not be as long as life.

The nov­el­ist faces the same dif­fi­cul­ties, the same tasks of or­gan­is­ing her story, choos­ing what to show and what to tell, how to me­di­ate com­pet­ing ver­sions to the reader. No nov­el­ist, I guess, thinks his­to­ri­ans have an easy job. If his­to­ri­ans think fic­tion is easy, you won­der what nov­els they are read­ing. Does a his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist also have to be a his­to­rian? Very few of us have the skills of a trained pro­fes­sional his­to­rian. We de­pend on their deep archival work. So in the nar­row sense, no. In the broader sense, I don’t think you can write good his­tor­i­cal fic­tion without a deep cu­rios­ity and en­gage­ment with the dis­ci­pline. What are the cru­cial el­e­ments for en­sur­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion works well in TV and film? Time is the enemy. TV screen time is lim­ited; only bloated Amer­i­can dra­mas drag them­selves out un­til their au­di­ence is weary. If we’re talk­ing about adap­ta­tion, it’s nec­es­sary to pick strands from the mas­ter nar­ra­tive, prune the number of characters and sto­ry­lines, and con­cen­trate on good sto­ry­telling for what’s left, find­ing a vis­ual lan­guage to re­place ex­po­si­tion. You need a team with a ded­i­ca­tion to the source ma­te­rial and in­ge­nu­ity in find­ing equiv­a­lents for what is lost. Read­ers may lament what’s miss­ing – but af­ter all, the orig­i­nal is not wiped out.

Fea­ture films are no­to­ri­ously in­ac­cu­rate, some­times to the point of dis­tor­tion. I think writ­ers and ed­i­tors sel­dom set out to de­ceive. But a tiny change in a re­write can lose or al­ter a vi­tal point, without any­one notic­ing at the time. But how much can any­one do in 104 min­utes? Bet­ter to slice his­tory fine – con­cen­trate on a small in­ci­dent, let its im­pli­ca­tions rip­ple – than to try to di­gest mighty sto­ry­lines.

The screen can do won­der­ful things. It can do in a split sec­ond what takes a nov­el­ist six pages. It can achieve ef­fects with heart­stop­ping pre­ci­sion. But you can’t re­ally adapt one medium to an­other – you have to recon­cep­tu­alise. Throw down the book and dream it… What ad­vice would you give an as­pir­ing his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist? Take your time un­til you feel com­fort­able in your cho­sen era. And if you are writ­ing about a real per­son, make sure it’s some­one you don’t un­der­stand. You write to find out, to make sense, rather than to tell what you al­ready know: to dis­cover and ex­plore. Your con­stant, puz­zled en­gage­ment with the characters keeps the story nim­ble. If the characters seem to be chang­ing, as liv­ing per­sons change, you are on the right track. If you had the time, which his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter or characters’ sto­ries would you most like to tell? Kind read­ers are not slow to make sug­ges­tions. But when they say “You should write about El­iz­a­beth I”, or Oliver Cromwell, or Napoleon, I smile and say: “Maybe you should. Maybe it’s your book.”

There’s so much I want to do, an­cient and mod­ern. But with Thomas Cromwell’s story still to com­plete, I am fully oc­cu­pied. Luck­ily for me, I know less ev­ery day; I am more en­thralled and cre­atively baf­fled than when I be­gan the tril­ogy 10 years ago.

You write to find out, to make sense, rather than to tell what you al­ready know: to dis­cover and ex­plore

Thomas Cromwell, the fo­cus of Hi­lary Man­tel’s tril­ogy. “You write to find out, rather than to tell what you al­ready know… Luck­ily for me, I know less ev­ery day”

Ac­com­pa­nies Hi­lary Man­tel’s Reith Lec­tures, Res­ur­rec­tion: The Art and Craft, be­gin­ning on Ra­dio 4 on Tues­day 13 June

BBC TV’s adap­ta­tion of Wolf Hall. “Time is the enemy,” says Man­tel, when it comes to mak­ing his­tor­i­cal nov­els work on TV. “It’s nec­es­sary to pick strands from the nar­ra­tive, prune the characters and sto­ry­lines, and con­cen­trate on good sto­ry­telling for...

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