Thursday 13 April 2017

'CRINGING' HISTORICAL NOVELISTS: Elizabeth Fremantle on Mantel at the Oxford Lit Fest

There has been a ruffling of feathers amongst the authors of historical fiction since Claire Armistead's piece in The Guardian suggested that Hilary Mantel, speaking at The Oxford Literary Festival, 'appeared to let slip the dogs of war against her fellow historical novelists'. Armistead's inflammatory article, it turns out, was based on a single comment about bibliographies, in a talk rich with fascinating detail about Mantel's writing, Cromwell, history and the imagination.

I was there, in the god's at the Sheldonian Theatre, listening to Mantel and, as one of those historical novelists Mantel was supposed to be attacking, I couldn't have been less aware of the alleged assault. Indeed, I felt that Mantel was mounting a lively defence of historical fiction and its authors, implying that the novel about past events has a legitimacy all of its own. In her opinion it is not necessary for novelists to 'burnish their research credentials' with a lengthy bibliography, or engage in what she termed 'apologetic cringing' because they think they are 'some inferior form of historian.' She seemed to me to be saying that, far from inferior and purveying a misleading version of the past, much historical fiction stands on equal footing with the work of academic historians.

Armistead's piece had many of my historical novelist friends mounting their own defence of their use of bibliographies in their work and their reasons for doing so: all legitimate. Personally, with regards to my own work, I felt Mantel had hit the nail on the head. My first two novels included vast and unwieldy bibliographies precisely because I felt I needed to prove the depth of my research – was a little ' apologetic' and 'cringing', if you like. As my confidence has grown I have felt more able to allow my fiction to stand alone.

Of course Mantel's comments must be seen in the context of the talk itself which was a discussion with Diarmaid McCullough, the foremost Reformation specialist, whose biography of Thomas Cromwell will be out in the autumn. McCullough is one of those academic historians whose research must be backed up by a lengthy bibliography, that is the way academia works, and Mantel was bound to take an opposing position in the name of fiction. The novel, she said, interpreting the same material through the prism of the imagination, 'is not about misleading, it is seeing something differently' and tends toward 'symbolic application'. Research, for her, 'is not looking things up' but is dependent upon 'a whole other state of imagination being entered into,' that has its own 'authority'.

I understood this as a defence against those who suggest that historical fiction is an inferior form and I for one appreciated such defiance from someone with Mantel's illustrious credentials. I also enjoyed the fact that she referred to herself as a 'historical novelist', a term that is often sneered at, when she might just as easily called herself a literary novelist. So far from launching her attack dogs she seemed to me, in her own idiosyncratic way, to be using her considerable traction to support the genre.

What Armistead didn't mention is that those present were offered a tantalising glimpse of the long awaited third book in Mantel's Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, which she made clear is still very much unfinished. She read the opening passage, which returns to the ending of Bring up the Bodies and the execution of Anne Boleyn but with a different emphasis, looking towards the fallout for Cromwell's part in the downfall of the Queen. It points to a satisfying intention to book-end The Mirror and the Light with execution scenes, as surely it will end with Cromwell's.

I for one am eagerly anticipating part three and will leave you with this line to whet your appetites: 'The blade cut through her neck with a sigh, easier than scissors through silk.'

Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of four Tudor set novels. Her latest, The Girl in the Glass Tower, is published by Penguin. You can find out about her work on


JO said...

It's an interesting dilemma - and don't novelists and historians love a good controversy!

I think we must do what feels right for us. I used to write academic books and papers, and everything had to be referenced. Which is fine - we need to know that new ideas or ways of thinking aren't simply plucked from the sky (I worked in Child Protection).

In my travel writing - I rarely reference anything. But nor to I make stuff up. It's all in my diaries if anyone seriously wanted to check.

And then my historical novel (The Planter's Daughter) - which has been a whole new adventure. And I had to engage in the bibliography debate all over again. My solution - no list of sources at the back. If someone wants to know just how much I read or which places I visited, they can contact me. But I have acknowledged the vignette in a small museum in New Zealand that became the launch pad of the whole thing. It gave me the barest bones of one woman's life - so I needed to acknowledge her reality and the real context of her life.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Liz, as I said to you on one of the discussions online, we each choose our own path. I include bibliographies and fairly detailed author's notes because I enjoy sharing my research and because readers actually like it and ask for it. As a reader myself I am sometimes (not always) personally disappointed not to find an author's note and bibliography at the end of a work of fiction because I want to take it further and such a resource does make it immediately easy, but I can certainly understand and appreciate the reasons why not to do so as well. We all find our own way and you have found the right one for you.
Journalists are often naughty. They unerringly pick up on the one controversial statement, or something that can be twisted to make controversy where there is none. They are story tellers too - and Hilary Mantel either plays to their gallery or is a victim of their whims - or both at different times. She is a doyen of statements that make waves, intentionally or not. However, they are always food for thought and create lively discussion - so perhaps the journalist has done everyone a favour in a backhand sort of way!

Carole-Ann said...

Over time, I have read many, many historical novels (including those romancy-type things) and I'm always happy to see a comment (large or small) on the books the author may have referenced.

Anya Seton, who wrote many amazing historical novels, had a small bibliography in the back of "Katherine"; I'm proud to say that that led me to studying all the Plantagents and Wars of the Roses in depth.

On the other hand, Dorothy Dunnett never told us where her information came from in the Lymond Chronicles; but she did hint, occasionally, in the Niccolo series. It took a fan to collect those bibliographic details and create 2 books, which every Dunnett fan must have by one's side.

Ultimately, in my mind, it's up to the author; there's no 'right' or 'wrong' way. But sometimes it's nice to have a little means to follow up something that has perked one's interest. :)

Mary Hoffman said...

Oh I am so jealous! I was in Italy or would certainly have been there.If only to get hints about The Mirror and the Light, for which I too can't wait.

That opening line sent shivers down my back, as we know how many goes to took to remove Cromwell's head,

We wlll welcome Hilary back here on the History Girls when the third book comes out.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I like a short bibliography and maybe an afterword, if possible, just to tell me the author has been doing their research and, if they have taken a bit of licence, why - and to let me know that it wasn't just an error. Besides, they often send me on a search of my own. Reading Laurie Halse Anderson's terrific YA novels about slaves in Revolutionary America - which had fascinating afterwords - led me to Simon Schama's book on the same subject.

But you can overdo it. Frank Yerby was a wonderful writer of entertaining historical romance who threw in entire appendices as well as bibliographies and STILL got things wrong.

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

I used acknowledgments at the end of my historical novel, Even in Darkness, to broadly describe my research, and my website, blogposts, and articles to further describe details of my research. Love this discussion!

Julia Ergane said...

Oh, my, I....can't....wait.
One of the things I always wondered about Elizabeth I was the fact that she did not provide Mary of Scots a professional French headsman who used a sword. That execution was such a muck-up compared to her Mother's. It was the least bit of common courtesy she could have offered a fellow monarch.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Me again - I opened the question to my Facebook readers on my author page this morning and so far 35 of 36 responses are all very keen to have author's note and bibliography included and even the 36th (a writer, although I was asking any writers responding for their preference as readers rather than commenting from their job), said that a short bibliography was fine.
Of course it's a biased readership - the sort who gravitate toward a keen interest in additional historical material, and only garnered in an 8 hour period, but interesting. It would seen that even if one is against the validation aspect, the reader satisfaction angle is definitely worth considering when deciding whether to enclose a bibliography or not.

Unknown said...

What a fascinating subject - and thank you for giving us a first hand perspective on a media-whipped controversy (fake news and alternative fact live large in the fourth estate...).

I agree that there should be no rivalry between historical biographies and historical fiction. In fact, they should be great complements to one another, because one wouldn't exist without the other.

Historical fiction gives the lay person the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a historical character or a particular time period and become familiar with a period in time. And the best historical fiction leads a reader to do some more independent research and perhaps read historical biographies with first hand-research.

Yet without this research, historical fiction would not exist because authors use it as a foundation for world building.

I'm wondering whether the best balance is have the bibliography - and extended notes on your web site and in the author's notes in the novel link to your web site for history fans.

Beth von Staats said...

Although I sometimes find author's notes at the end of a novel helpful, I see no reason compelling a novelist to include a bibliography to "prove" his or her research. In my mind, the art of historical fiction includes an inability for a reader to see where fact ends and fiction begins, one major strength of Mantel's brilliant novel WOLF HALL. I literally was so intrigued by historical details I was looking through Cromwell biographies to determine the truth of things. Yes, Wolsey loved cats. Yes, Cranmer loved horses. Yes, Ralph Sadler was raised in Cromwell's home in a freely given arrangement. No, More did not torture people to exact confessions. A bibliography was not needed to sort those things out.

Although I understand the reason why some novelists include exhaustive proof of their research, I see it more of a defensive mechanism in some cases rather than assistance for the reader. Yes, a great novel will lead readers to learn more about history, but I prefer not to be "spoon fed" source material. If I want to learn the facts of history, I prefer to go to the work of historians and biographers. That is their job, and they are quite good at it.

Thanks so much for sharing this, and what a great discussion.

Melisende said...

Beth, I could not agree more with your comments: " Yes, a great novel will lead readers to learn more about history, but I prefer not to be "spoon fed" source material. "

As a reader, I don't mind a short paragraph outlining the author's particular "take" on history. However, for novels, if your subject matter is entertaining enough, I will go off and read and learn more. Primarily, I want to be entertained, not lectured to. Because there is nothing so off-putting to a reader, who goes off to explore new information, to be dissed by said author because you have chosen to read something not on their recommended reading list.

I am grown up enough to able to use a library index or google search. That kind of material belongs on your blog or website - which is where you want to direct your readers to isn't it??.

Liz Fremantle said...

Thanks so much for all your comments. It really was an inspiring talk and I love the way she always seems to raise issues that provoke discussion.

Leslie Wilson said...

Excellent blog! I must say, if you have a website I think that is the place for details of source material. I wonder if the French would have sent a headsman to execute Mar Queen of Scots though? She was their ex-Queen and they supported her attempts to displace Elizabeth. I believe there IS historical evidence that More helped torture suspected heretics, btw.. I think, for historical novels, you don't 'look things up' -apart from dates which I can never remember. I do an enormous amount of research, but it's to enable me to inhabit the period. That being said, we paint our image of the times - and so do historians. We work within our limitations, of what's available to us to find out, and also the current viewpoint on things. The latter is a strength as well as a weakness. Looking back, we notice things the contemporary market didn't find interesting, like the servants' lives at Longbourn. There are things we don't know that Jane Austen did - and some things that she did know are less interesting to the modern reader, and it's the difficult task of the author to decide, without being patronising, what to leave out. Not so easy once you immerse yourself in the period, and its language too!

Celia Rees said...

A bit late to this but, I'm as jealous as Mary that I wasn't there. I've just read the article and it seemed a feeble effort to segue into puffs for the Walter Scott Prize and the short lists thereof. I've read all them and would not say any of them are that amazingly, startlingly, new and innovative, or that they mark historical fiction 'moving on' in stunning new directions since Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies. A writer friend was recently told that historical fiction now has to have ',modern relevance' whatever that means - perhaps thats what CA is getting at. No-one was more innovative and stunning than HM.No-one comes near. As far as I'm concerned, she can say what she likes. I agree with Leslie. A web site is the place for bibliographies.

Unknown said...

I've always resisted adding bibliographies to my historical novels - partly perhaps because I want to retain the mystery of the 'recipe', but maybe also at some insecure level I don't want readers rushing off to 'fact-check' me... Elizabeth Chadwick's Facebook research does suggest though that it's something readers really like and respond to. Maybe in the age of 'fake news' even fiction writers will have to be more forthcoming about our sources...

Ingaflakkari said...

Agree with you so much!

Ingaflakkari said...

I'm bery interested in this discussion too!

Ingaflakkari said...


Leslie Wilson said...

Well said, Celia! I am re-reading Wolf Hall and bouleversee again by its brilliance.