Readers lose their heads for Tudor trilogy

Hilary Mantel: Struggled through treatment and surgery, and was told by her doctors to stop writing.

Are stories truer than facts? The most anticipated novel of the year charts the rise and fall of the ruthless Thomas Cromwell, and takes readers to places where historians do not dare to go.

From blacksmith’s son to the most powerful man in England, and then to the executioner’s block.

Next Thursday, an epic journey comes to a bloody end with the release of The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel.

Her fictional retelling of the life of Thomas Cromwell is a literary phenomenon.

The first two novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, sold over five million copies worldwide, won the Booker Prize, and have been adapted for stage and TV. Bookshops will open early on 5 March as fans queue to get their hands on the final book in the trilogy.

Mantel has her own extraordinary story. A mute child from a small English town, she found her voice in writing, but suffered many years from a mysterious debilitating and painful illness, later diagnosed as endometriosis.

She struggled through treatment and surgery, and was told by her doctors to stop writing. She didn’t listen and the results are some of the most important fiction of our age.

In these three books, she takes one of history’s villains and makes him the hero of his own story.

In an age of rigid hierarchy, Cromwell uses his intelligence and hard work to rise from the bottom of society to the highest political office. Mantel lets us into his thoughts as he secures the divorce of Henry VIII’s first wife and the execution of his second. Dead for centuries, Cromwell comes to life on the page.

Each book has taken years of work and historians applaud Mantel’s meticulous research. But she has her critics. Historian John Guy worries that readers treat her novels as true history. Diane Purkiss at Oxford University criticises Mantel for putting 21st-Century thoughts into the mind of a 16th-Century man. It’s anachronistic, like “having him drive a car”.

But historians have always looked down on historical fiction, argues author Jane Smiley. The power of fiction is to explore truths that are beyond facts. A writer uses imagination to “see the world through her character’s point of view” and create a deeper understanding about people’s inner worlds.

So, are stories truer than facts?

Keep your head

Historical fiction is just entertainment, argue some. It is escapism. A good story. And it should not be confused with serious historical scholarship. Historians do not make things up, but analyse the evidence and construct a balanced and impartial view of events. Fiction may use facts as a starting point, but its objective is completely different and it takes its readers away from truth and not towards it.

But others say, we live our lives through stories. From gossip at the bus stop to the ten o’clock news, stories are how we make sense of the world and understand our fears, hopes, and dreams. And those of other people. A historian can tell us what Cromwell did and how he died, but Mantel gives us an impression of what it felt like to be him: to rise from nowhere, to wield power and then to lose it all.

You Decide

  1. Why do we tell stories?
  2. What is the difference between a truth and a fact?

Activities

  1. Write a diary entry from the perspective of a famous historical figure. Get inside their head and describe their thoughts and feelings.
  2. “Stories are truer than history.” With the help of the teacher, divide the class into novelists and historians. The novelists will prepare and present arguments for the statement, and the historians will oppose it. At the end of the debate, vote to see which side has won.

Some People Say...

“The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.”

Hilary Mantel, English author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Everything we know about the world is the result of experience and interpretation, and our unique perspective means we will always see the world differently. Historical evidence, documents, and remains allow historians to build a picture of what happened in the past. But this evidence must be interpreted, and historians will often disagree about what it does and does not show. Since we never have access to all the facts and not everything is recorded, our truths are always incomplete.
What do we not know?
Whilst we can agree that there are many ways to understand the world and make sense of the past, people disagree on whether some ways are better than others. Are all types of knowledge equal and different, or is there a hierarchy of truth? Philosophers, journalists, historians, and novelists have very different ideas about how to distinguish between “facts” and “opinions”.

Word Watch

Thomas Cromwell
English lawyer and statesman (1485-1540). During the reign of Henry VIII, he began the English Reformation.
Booker Prize
One of the most high-profile literary prizes for novels in the English language. Hilary Mantel is the first woman and first British writer to win the award twice.
Mute
Mantel had “elective mutism”, an anxiety disorder common in small children making it difficult to speak.
Debilitating
An illness that makes someone weak, affecting their ability to live a normal life.
Endometriosis
An abnormality of the uterus, causing chronic pain and infertility.
Anachronistic
Something belonging to the wrong time period.

Subjects

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