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

Today, the Wolf Hall novelist delivers her fourth BBC Reith Lecture on historical fiction and how the past shapes our lives. Here are five fascinating insights from her first three talks…

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.” Listening to them helps us to understand our own time.

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

We can never have a complete understanding of history, because most of the evidence is gone. History is “no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth.”

3/ “You become a novelist so you can tell the truth.”

Writers of historical fiction are not “making things up”; they are filling gaps in the evidence to paint a more meaningful picture of the past.

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

The past was not primitive, but it was different. Before the industrial revolution, for example, it was more religious. We will understand it better if we do not judge by our own standards.

5/ “We thought history was out there somewhere, glowing like a planet… 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. However, historical fiction can challenge both these instincts.

Truer than fiction?

It is wrong to suggest that fiction can be more truthful than fact, say some. A historian’s job is to study the evidence and write an accurate account of the past. By definition, novels invent what historians do not know. Saying they are “true” is dangerous.

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 really felt like to live in the past. They search for the truth of human nature, which history books lack.

You Decide

  1. Are historical novels the best way of learning about the past?


  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.

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 based on extensive research, although at least one historian has called them inaccurate.
What do we not know?
We can never know exactly how the past looked, sounded and felt. Our knowledge will always be based on sources and records that only tell part of the story.

Word Watch

Hilary Mantel
The British author has achieved worldwide fame for her novels about Thomas Cromwell, a politician during Henry VIII’s reign.
Reith Lectures
An annual series of radio lectures by a leading thinker of the time. They have been broadcast since 1948.
St Augustine
A theologian and philosopher who lived from 350 to 430AD.
Industrial revolution
The period from the mid-17th to mid-18th century when Britain moved from an agricultural society to one that was dependent on manufacturing and machines.

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