Tag Archives: Hilary Mantel

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!