Hilary Mantel: ‘The dead have a vital force’

Past lives: Claire Foy plays Anne Boleyn in the BBC adaptation of Mantel’s Wolf Hall. © BBC

To many she is Britain’s greatest living writer and our most interesting public intellectual. Today, the Wolf Hall novelist delivers her fourth BBC Reith Lecture. Here are five of her ideas.

1/ The dead “have something to tell us, something we need to understand.”

Hilary Mantel began the first of the 2017 Reith Lectures with a quote from St Augustine: “The dead are invisible, they are not absent.” Through our genes and our culture, she argued, the past is still somehow present in all of us. Attempting to listen to it helps us to understand our own time. Fiction is one way to do this.

2/ “Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth… information is not knowledge.”

We can never have a complete understanding of history, because 99% of the evidence is gone forever. All that we are left with, argues Mantel, are the surviving records and our interpretations of them — and even these may come from unreliable sources or biased historians. History is “no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth.”

3/ “You don’t become a novelist to become a spinner of entertaining lies: you become a novelist so you can tell the truth.”

Historians and archives can never know for sure what people from the past thought or felt. And yet writers of historical fiction are not “making things up” by trying to show those things, said Mantel. Instead, they are trying to fill the gaps in the evidence to paint a more meaningful picture of the past — one “where politics meets psychology, where private and public meet.”

4/ “The first lesson in understanding the past is not to assume anything about ethics, values, tastes.”

The past was not some dark, primitive time — but it was different. Before the industrial revolution, especially, it was more religious and less dependent on technology. Learning these differences and not judging the dead by our own moral standards helps us to understand them better.

5/ “We thought history was out there somewhere, glowing like a planet – independent of human agency. Now I know that it is something we carry inside.”

There is often a tension between our nostalgia for the past, and our horror of it. Historical fiction, however, can challenge these interpretations — and offer new ones.

Truer than fiction?

So could novels be more truthful than history books? For many, it is a slightly preposterous question. The historian’s job is to study the evidence of the past, and write the most accurate story possible. Good historians do this without bias. Mixing fact with fiction and claiming that it is “true” is a dangerous game.

There are different kinds of truth, say others. Mantel’s stories are rooted in fact, but they offer a deeper layers of meaning — about what it felt like to live in the past, and to be confronted with the hard choices that now seem inevitable. It searches for an essential truth of human nature, which history books lack.

You Decide

  1. Are historical novels the best way of learning about the past?
  2. Do you feel as though you carry history — of your family, country or community — inside you?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have been asked to give a lecture about your favourite school subject. Write down five statements that you would make about it.
  2. Research a historical figure, and then write a short story about a pivotal moment in their life.

Some People Say...

“You must ask whether there is such a thing as human nature.”

Hilary Mantel

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, are historical fiction about the Tudor period. They are written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. Both have won the Booker Prize for fiction. Mantel’s books are based on extensive research, although in May the Cambridge historian John Guy criticised them for being inaccurate. Mantel’s final two lectures will be broadcast today at 9am and at the same time next week.
What do we not know?
As Mantel says, we can never know exactly how the past looked, sounded and felt. Our understanding will always be based on sources and records that only tell part of the story — because they were written by humans, and even humans who are striving for neutrality can still make mistakes.

Word Watch

Hilary Mantel
The British author has achieved worldwide fame with Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012). These are the first two novels in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, a politician during Henry VIII’s reign. She has also written about the French Revolution, and more recent history.
Reith Lectures
An annual series of radio lectures by a leading thinker of the time. They have been going since 1948 and were named after Sir John Reith, the BBC’s first director-general.
St Augustine
A theologian and philosopher who lived from 350 to 430AD.
Evidence
Mantel quoted the historian Patrick Collinson: “99% of the evidence, above all, unrecorded speech, is not available to us.”
Industrial revolution
The period from the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century when Britain moved from an agricultural society to one that was dependent on manufacturing and machines. The change quickly spread to other countries.
Differences
Mantel offered several of these differences in her second lecture. For example, time was more like a “candle burning down” than an “arrow pointing forward.”