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.

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.

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”.

So, can stories be 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.

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.

You Decide

  1. Why do we tell stories?


  1. Write a diary entry from the perspective of a famous historical figure. Get inside their head and describe their thoughts and feelings.

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.
A fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen.
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.
Mantel had “elective mutism”, an anxiety disorder common in small children making it difficult to speak.
An illness that makes someone weak, affecting their ability to live a normal life.
An abnormality of the uterus causing chronic pain and infertility.
Showing great attention to detail.
Something belonging to the wrong time period.
Academic study or achievement; learning at a high level.

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