Monday, 23 February 2015

(HOW) DARE WE WRITE HISTORICAL NOVELS? by Leslie Wilson


David Starkey has announced in various media that Wolf Hall is a 'deliberate perversion of history', (though he has neither read the books nor seen the television adaptation so I do wonder how he can assert this). Someone, however, has told him that Mark Rylance, playing Thomas Cromwell, is portrayed as showing grief when his wife and daughters are carried off in a day by the sweating sickness. 'I gather Hilary Mantel has imagined this wonderful tender experience of Thomas Cromwell losing wife and children,' he says, and 'there is not a scrap of evidence for it at all.'


Not all historians hate historical fiction, and many of them are hugely generous towards fiction writers  - I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Professor Michael Biddiss, for one, who referred me to several useful texts on Nazi Germany and particularly to the invaluable documentary history of Nazism by J Noakes and G Pridham - so helpful, particularly when I was writing Saving Rafael. However, much as I respect and value historians, I do not need their permission to write my fictions.
The thing is (Doctor Starkey), that a novel set in the past is not an easy-read alternative to a history book (however carefully we do our research, and some of us, notably Dame Hilary, do it very carefully indeed. Indeed Hilary Mantel's work is widely respected by historians). The term historical fiction may perhaps be a tripwire here. We are writers of fiction, and some of us choose to write about historical subjects.That means that we apply our imagination to those subjects, which is what writers do, and of course we go to places (like someone's probable response to a bereavement) that historians must in honesty hold back from.
In exactly the same way, I might write a story about someone, say, who is a teacher in a North of England town. There is no evidence that such a character exists or that any given human being ever behaved exactly as this character did. If I cannot find it, it is not incumbent in me to leave it out, because the job of a writer is to say: 'What if? Supposing?' It is to write a story.
My grandmother in the '30s

Actually, I researched the novels I set in Nazi Germany very carefully, but this was because my enterprise was to understand what it was like to be a person who had to live in Nazi Germany. That is - as readers of my blogs here will readily understand - something very important to me. The enormous amount of reading I have done about the period, as well as watching videos, talking to people who remembered those times, reflecting on the things that came to me from my own family, was not directed at making my works good textbooks for Year 9s. Some people have found them so, but what drove me was that need to open a window for myself on twelve dreadful years that marked and scarred my immediate family as well as damaging and bereaving millions of others.
In the end, though, it came down to 'What if? Supposing?' Supposing one of the boy soldiers who were drafted into the German Home Guard in 1945 was the sole survivor of his unit; supposing he met a girl on the run from Berlin, who had a very different background; supposing the interaction and relationship between them changed both of them as they trod the refugee road with the fighting going on round them? Supposing  the girl was jazz-crazy, and could play the harmonica, and supposing a fantasy grew legs and desperate people started to believe it? Then you get Last Train from Kummersdorf.
There's another idea about historical fiction that is popular among the chattering classes, even post Wolf Hall. It is that it is somehow tacky, chocolate-boxy, that the proper enterprise of novelists is to describe the present day (preferably grittily). Now I have no objection to grit, but there was just as much of it around in the past - and indeed there is a whole generation of excellent novels that deal with the undersides of history, some written by fellow-contributors to this blog. 
One of my history teachers at school took this line: she said we should avoid historical fictions, which were always misleading and trashy, and concentrate on fiction written at the time we were studying. Maybe she would have liked to have a go at the English literature syllabus and excise such trashy works as Henry IV Part One, (which I studied for A Level). Also, she must have despised such trivial works as War and Peace, Schiller's Maria Stuart, Vanity Fair, all of Shakespeare's History plays, Büchner's Danton's Death, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (which I first saw, incidentally, at Kendal Grammar School with my brother as one of the Women of Canterbury and David Starkey in the star role. The poetry blew me away.)

If the past is another country, it's one that is part of our present. Humans have many means of visiting it and trying to inhabit it; through histories, biography, visiting historical sites, and drama, in which I include the novel. To talk about, mythologise, and speculate on the past is part of what it means to be human, and that makes it a valid subject for literature.

12 comments:

Susan Price said...

First thing I thought, when I saw Starkey's comment about 'perversion of history' is that all Shakespeare's history plays perverted history - perverted it deliberately to suit the Tudors. And so what? We don't go to Shakespeare if we want to know 'what happened.'

Most people who enjoy reading historical novels know that they 'pervert history' to some extent, thank you very much, Starkey. In fact, having enjoyed a novel, they may then go on to read the factual history of the period, not only to find out 'the truth' (in as much as it's ever discoverable) but to appreciate how the author of fiction handled their material.

It's also arguable that a writer of historical fiction, precisely because they use their imagination, may on occasion get closer to the truth, even if they can't prove it, than someone who won't write down anything they haven't got evidence for. (It's like the difference between circumstantial and physical evidence in a courtroom. Physical evidence is undeniable, but fifteen little 'circumstances' all added together, are equally powerful.)
And finally, I have a brain, thank you, Starkey. I am quite capable of holding in it, at one and the same time, the knowledge that Cromwell was, almost certainly, a common or garden psychopath - while at the same time appreciating Mantel's portrait as an alternative, and a brilliantly researched and imagined alternative.
After all, Henry VIII wasn't a jolly, bluff fellow, a Carry-On joke - he was a madman. The Tories aren't 'the caring party.' I don't believe everything I read - though Starkey obviously believes than anyone who isn't a University professor does.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Mind you, Mantel herself is dismissive of fellow writers of historical fiction. She said at a seminar at the Institute of Historical research
"What happens in most historical fiction is – the author dresses up twenty-first century figures in the costume of the period. Conventional historical fiction – offers moral teaching about the lives of women. I did not want a cocked or disguised way of writing about the present.
As someone who does her research intensively and was at that seminar as a speaker, I found that stand just as arrogant in its own way as Starkey
Anyone would think Mantel had uniquely invented the highly researched historical novel and that everyone else just wasn't in the same class. Humph!

Leslie Wilson said...

A history professor told me he had seen documents where Henry had written: The King will, and Cromwell had crossed out:The King and substituted Parliament. Plus he changed the laws of the country to help the poor; so maybe he was as Hilary portrayed him? Of course Hilary didn't invent well-researched historical fiction: she has always respected mine, for example. But there IS historical fiction that is just like a fancy-dress party - like Cora slouching all over the sofa at Diwnton- at an era when women sat up straight! Excuse possible typos and unclarities - I am writing this during a Peppa Pig showing at the flicks with grandkids.. Elizabeth - I do know you do your research very thoroughly!

Claire Ridgway said...

While I don't think that Starkey should have been commenting without actually having read the books or watched the series, I do understand some of his frustration with Wolf Hall. Mantel has claimed in talks and interviews that her novel is accurate and that she doesn't "knowingly" distort facts or falsify dates or events etc, so many people are going to take her word as fact. Her work is also being labelled "semi-fiction" by some.
The series has gone further than the novels - in last week's episode we had Cromwell actually saving Henry VIII's life.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I think if she'd said 'some' it would have been a bit better, but she said 'most.'

Leslie Wilson said...

Well, she doesn't. But if you are writing fiction, there have to be times when you do imagine certain things, or there would be no novel without it! Cromwell was a kindly and affectionate father to his son Gregory - and frankly, it's surely reasonable to suppose that he minded his wife and daughters dying. Most people wouldn't exactly dance a jig. ..we don't have evidence that he went to the loo either, but it's not unreasonable to suppose he did. It's a question of a balance of probabilities, which is the criterion I use myself. On the other hand, to me the fact that any one writer does her research thoroughly and IS historically reliable is irrelevant to the general point, which is that fiction is as valid when set in the past as when set in the present -and what IS the present, anyway? History starts after three seconds, according to a piece I recently read in the New Scientist - that being the length of the sections of time we perceive as the present..

Claire Ridgway said...

I think fiction is fiction unless an author claims otherwise. That's my only concern with Wolf Hall, people think it's more than that and, as I said, it's being described as "semi fiction".

Nick Green said...

I have long suspected that Starkey is a colossal bell-end, and his statement on Wolf Hall confirmed it beyond all doubt. Where to begin?

He hasn't read the books nor seen the adaptation, so how on earth can he comment? His objection to Cromwell 'showing emotion' at the death of his family... well, if he'd seen the TV version, Cromwell sheds A SINGLE TEAR over this tragedy, where most ordinary mortals (yes, even in callous Tudor times) would have been in pieces. This moment shows a) that Cromwell has feelings, but also b) that he is largely cold and hard inside. Note that he also sheds that single tear over the death of Wolsey, which indicates how much he cares about that, and in what a world of hurt Wolsey's persecutors are going to end up.

But aside from all that... Clearly, Starkey doesn't know what fiction is, nor what it is for, and nor does he understand it. It's the same with people who say you don't have to read the books because 'everybody knows what happens.' Ha! 'What happens' is the least important part of fiction. Fiction is about living it. It's about an altered state of consciousness. What is it like to be someone else?

Hilary Mantel can give you that experience like almost no-one else. She is a genius, a seer, in that regard. I'm a hardcore rationalist but HM can make me believe in ghosts.

Leslie Wilson said...

'Semi-fiction,' what an odd description. OK, there are always incontrovertible facts in all fiction; like when we describe people driving round in cars, rather than making up a different form of transport..
As far as I'm concerned, however, I would generally assume that if Hilary puts something into her fiction, not that it indubitably happened, but that there is very good reason for supposing it might have done. You can trust me, for my 3rd Reich stories, to follow the same guidelines,even though I use invented characters. But when you read historians, I think you should also be careful, and regard it as a statement of probability based on evidence, rather than what definitely happened. Because academic history is also a matter of interpretation, and historians get it wrong, or their interpretations are disputed. In the field of 20th century German history, I have seen some terrible howlers, often because the historians have either not had good German themselves, or have relied on other people with inadequate German...

Leslie Wilson said...

NB. When I said: 'When she doesn;t, that was in response to the comment about her not knowingly distorting facts.. Elizabeth's comment came up more or less at the same time as I posted mine. Nick, thanks for putting so well what fiction is. As for not reading the books (Wolf Hall trilogy) because you know what happens - when I was reading Bring Up the Bodies I was on edge, as if I didn't know, even though I did. THAT's great writing for you. As you said, Nick, the altered state of consciousness. Which is what we all hope to achieve.

Carol McGrath said...

Starkey likes to be controversial and it may well be true that there is no scrap of evidence re Thomas Cromwell's feeling re the loss of his family. The point here is that we make up stuff to give historical characters personalities. I think what Mantel means re historical research is that she does try to access the atmosphere of the period and an understanding of Cromwell as a man who climbed the greasy pole and why he might have done so and how that might have been for him. She keeps to known facts. And an aside here, the destruction of the monasteries benefitted opportunists and was aimed to gather revenue. That did not benefit the poor.
There is a great amount of costume drama type historical fiction with 21st C sensibilities attached to protagonists and why not. That kind of historical fiction can be well researched re the background and setting. And can provide a story. They are valid as a particular kind of historical fiction. The important thing here is that Starkey is saying that even fine historical fiction writers such as Mantel invent. Who knows what Anne Boleyn really felt or said or what actual conversations Henry VIII had with her or his thoughts either. Writers of historical fiction may create the world of the past with a degree of authenticity but they are not writing as historians.

Leslie Wilson said...

Hilary Mantel does indeed write her books from 'known facts' but they are not known to very many people. She reads academic papers, corresponds with historians, is aware of documentary evidence. She was telling the Society of Authors how she spent hours one night chasing up exchange rates of the period. Her Cromwell is based on the documents: the Cromwell who helped send poor boys, such as he had been himself, to university - and that began before he had any great wealth himself. I think I'm right in saying that he instituted the poor law, which may sound dire, thinking of Oliver Twist, but in fact made parishes responsible for their own destitute people, so they couldn't shrug off their responsibilities by chucking them out (as jobcentres are made to do nowadays). He was no saint, but a very complex human being, someone who would give you a good dinner and entertain you splendidly, with a sense of fun. A man who knew how things worked. And a politician. Of course he did awful things and Mantel never glosses them over, but you understand, in Bring Up the Bodies, the pressures that made him do so.
For many people, to have done such wide-ranging and scholarly research might well impede the writing, filling it with heavy facts. Hilary Mantel's genius is that she has achieved something quite unique, (in the Tudor novels and in A Place of Greater Safety) in making history into great art (and compulsive reading), taking the facts of the case, as you say, Carol, and bringing them to vibrant life, as Nick said, and telling us something about the human condition that resonates to 21st century people, while remaining of its own time. This is because she has not just done her homework, but lived in the period; made us breathe its atmosphere.