Hilary Mantel talks about history, facts and fictions

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Hilary Mantel, a novelist rightly famous for twice winning the Man Booker prize with her historical novels about Thomas Cromwell, yesterday gave the first of her three BBC Reith Lectures.

In the first lecture (published here in this weekend’s The Guardian), Mantel explores the complicated relationship between history, fact and fiction.

You should really go and read the whole thing.

Now.

But if you still need prompting, try this excerpt…

Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.

Or this one

The pursuit of the past makes you aware, whether you are novelist or historian, of the dangers of your own fallibility and inbuilt bias. The writer of history is a walking anachronism, a displaced person, using today’s techniques to try to know things about yesterday that yesterday didn’t know itself. He must try to work authentically, hearing the words of the past, but communicating in a language the present understands. The historian, the biographer, the writer of fiction work within different constraints, but in a way that is complementary, not opposite. The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts. Even the driest, most data-driven research involves an element of interpretation. Deep research in the archives can be reported in tabular form and lists, by historians talking to each other. But to talk to their public, they use the same devices as all storytellers – selection, elision, artful arrangement.

What are you waiting for? Click here for the whole delicious thing.

Update: I do apologise! It seems I posted the same excerpt twice, instead of two different excerpts. The second one is now different from the first. Doh!

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11 responses »

  1. Sorry. It read like an apology for making up stuff about history. She writes:
    For this reason, some readers are deeply suspicious of historical fiction. They say that by its nature it’s misleading. But I argue that a reader knows the nature of the contract. When you choose a novel to tell you about the past, you are putting in brackets the historical accounts – which may or may not agree with each other – and actively requesting a subjective interpretation.

    That’s one contract into which I do not willingly enter.

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    • Except that all fiction involves ‘making stuff up’ and we know that whenever we crack open a new novel. That is the novellist’s contract, if you like. Historical fiction can make up anything it wants – it is fiction. The only question is how well it does it. I find it difficult to read Australian fiction set during Elizabeth Macarthur’s life because, knowing the facts, I find it hard to suspend my disbelief for the fictional parts. But that’s my problem, not the novellists’.

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  2. Thanks so much for this link: I read The Guardian every day (I’m even a paid up subscriber!) but I had missed this delicious article:)
    Bill, I have the same problem with so-called family histories: based on those I know who play in that sandpit, I think that most who engage in them don’t even know the nature of the contract or the fuzziness of the historical documents they treasure and (mis)interpret. So entering into that contract seems like folly to me too.
    But I enjoy historical fiction of the modern kind. (I need hardly say, not soppy historical romances though of course I liked them when I was a teenager). I wonder about the gaps and distortions in the historical record too, and I like reading fiction that offers what other people have wondered and imagined to fill those gaps.

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  3. I must find time to read/hear these. Thanks for sharing them.

    I will be a bit iconoclastic and put forward the argument I like to make, which is that fiction is more “honest” than history because of the contract with the reader that says “this is fiction, and I’m selecting what I tell you, for a start”, and because it does recognise that the main thing (really – though this can be argued around the edges) is the “truth” not the “facts”. When you read fiction you KNOW that the facts may be wrong or rearranged or filled in when there are gaps but you are interested in the truths being explored. Is this what it was like? Is this what people thought or why they did what they did?

    With history, it’s sometimes easy to be lulled into a sense that you are being handed down the facts aka the truth from on high and not recognise the decisions the historian has made, what the limits of the sources were, etc. To some degree I don’t mind the fact that the writer of history has “an inbuilt bias” or is a “walking anachronism”. It’s because of this, because in our day we are concerned about different things – women’s lives, indigenous people, servants’ lives, whatever – that we are looking again at the past and reassessing it from these different perspectives. It keeps history fresh and relevant.

    I could go on … but I’ll just ask why she uses “he” for her historian in that second quote.

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