Pundits have claimed we live in a “post-truth” age of “alternative facts.” Certainly we live in a time when consuming news reports demands continual, judicious assessment of the ratio of fact to fabrication. The division between the two is a line regularly navigated by historical novelists — the most conscientious of whom are keenly aware that many readers understand the past through fiction’s fractured prism rather than academic accounts.
Dame Hilary Mantel, who will be plenary speaker at the “Fictive Histories, Historical Fictions” conference at the Huntington Friday and Saturday, thinks many people perceive history as dry facts to be absorbed “rather than a skill for understanding ordinary life.” Fiction, she writes via email from England, can offer a simpler way to view “the human face of the past,” but that offer is “deceptive”: “Fiction goes wrong if it tries to close the gap too much — sentimentally depicting the people of the past as being just like us, underneath their clothes.”
The question of “how popular history comes into being — why we believe what we do believe” fascinates her. That fascination informed her research into 16th-century adversaries Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, and her perspective on their characters sharpens the dramatic charge of her Booker Prize-winning novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” The more “self-aware” More, a prolific writer, “told posterity what he wanted us to think about him,” she says. With the historically reviled Cromwell, “as you move closer to the sources, you see how much distortion and laziness there’s been, with prejudices and errors bowling down the generations.
“Historical novels that feature real people are studies in reputation, as much as stories in themselves. You live with the non-detachable shadow of all those other interpretations.”
The textured verisimilitude of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning bestsellers like Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” derive power from historical accuracy. Doerr set his story in occupied France during World War II, Whitehead addresses human rights and generational aspirations to freedom within the context of the Civil War, and Mantel has earned plaudits for the vigorous research that makes her evocations of Tudor-era England feel so immediate. Each writer had to find their own balance on that dividing line between fiction and fact.
“For me the facts have preference, and imagination is an aid to understanding them,” Mantel explains. “Few versions of history are beyond criticism. ‘Facts’ often melt away, the more closely they are examined. A good many of the things that people think they know about the reign of Henry VIII turn out not to be true.
“I try to consult original sources if I can, and be questioning and skeptical about the interpretations that historians have built, though of course I recognize a debt to the many thorough and excellent historians who have written about the reign. For myself, I invent to fill those gaps that facts will never close. … I try to follow the curve of real events, to shape my fiction around history, not history around my fiction.”
Two dramatic turning points within “Wolf Hall” illuminate how Mantel fills those gaps between established facts. Cromwell, her compellingly human protagonist, sees a vision of his beloved wife standing on the stairs as he leaves home on what turns out to be the day of her death. During another crucial passage, King Henry tells Cromwell of a surreal dream of his brother, a late-night exchange that bonds the two men. Neither incident was recorded in real life, yet they are believable on the page because of Mantel’s thorough research.
“We know very little about Thomas Cromwell’s wife, and can know nothing of the king’s inner visions and dreams,” she acknowledges. “I call it the core activity of writing historical fiction — which is reimagining a lost life, from the inside out. Lacking evidence to the contrary, I imagine Cromwell’s marriage was a good marriage, if not a romantic one, because he stayed so close to Elizabeth’s family after her death. Also, he didn’t marry again — an unusual decision in those days for a man left with small children. So it seems her death may have hit him hard. …
“I have built my picture of these two revenants with the help of ghost tales from Roman times onwards. These images sink very deep into human consciousness and are persistent, changing their form over centuries, but not losing their grip.”
“Hilary did deep, extensive research for ‘Wolf Hall,’ ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ and volume three that is coming, ‘The Mirror and the Light,’” affirms Sue Hodson, Huntington Curator of Literary Collections, adding that Mantel conducted much of that research at Public Record Offices in England. “All the way through that she would run things by Mary Robertson, asking things like, ‘If Cromwell went to Cornwall in the year 1601, might he have been talking about such-and-such?’ Mary would say, ‘You know, that’s a real possibility, because…’— and they would have this scholarly dialogue, and Hilary would write that into her novel.”
The Huntington Library has been collecting Mantel’s manuscripts, notes, correspondence and ephemera since 2001, according to Hodson, who first approached Mantel about archiving her papers there. When Mantel later mentioned she was working on a new book about Cromwell, Hodson introduced her to Huntington curator emerita of British historical manuscripts Robertson, her then boss and colleague, who had written a Ph.D. dissertation on Cromwell. Mantel subsequently dedicated “Wolf Hall” to Robertson. “Fictive Histories” closes Saturday afternoon with a “conversation” between the two women. Mantel effectively kicks off the conference tonight with a lecture, “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There.”
Since the interdisciplinary conference addresses historical fiction in general, Hodson has created a display bookended with a page of notes from a “Wolf Hall” draft and the papers of 19th-century novelist Jane Porter. The Scottish author published “The Scottish Chiefs,” about Sir William Wallace, in 1810.
“Jane Porter was tremendously popular in her time; she would have been like a Stephen King now,” Hodson says. “She wrote novels that were published in three volumes, called triple-deckers, and people just ate them up. They would read them by candlelight at night. They were exciting and evocative — the hero saves the day and all that sort of thing. She was really one of the earliest of the modern era of historical novelists.”
Since Porter’s day, standards have evolved and readers grown more sophisticated; intricate literary works with underlying contemporary relevance dominate historical fiction more than the “bodice rippers” that once popularly characterized the genre. At the conference, which will be convened on Friday by Dr. Sophie Coulombeau from Cardiff University in Wales, writers and professors from the UK and the US will chew over sticky topics such as experimentation in historical novels and “How the BBC Defines TV History.” Azusa Pacific University professor Mark Eaton will discuss “Counterfactuals in US Historical Fiction,” while “Landfalls” author Naomi Williams will consider “post-fact” cultural fallout in her talk, “Dancing Through the Alternative Facts: Cannibal Stories, Hagiographies, and Fictionalizing the Lapérouse Expedition.”
This year’s political climate is making “Fictive Histories, Historical Fictions” unexpectedly timely. Consider how, among other things, “Wolf Hall” illuminates the psychological complexity of Cromwell’s position in resolute service to an increasingly irrational king. Some might discern similarities between that and current debates about “normalizing” aberrant behavior by political leaders — though Mantel prefers to let readers draw any such parallels, rather than “signposting” them.
“Some of the basics of human power-struggles don’t change,” she says. “But the stakes were different, I think. One wrong decision by Henry VIII wouldn’t risk blowing up the world. But on the other hand, for the individual, the jeopardy couldn’t be greater; one wrong decision as a minister, and you lost your head.”
Hilary Mantel delivers her lecture at Rothenberg Hall at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 11; it will be simulcast in Haaga Hall. Free admission but reservations required at brownpapertickets.com/event/2863554. “Fictive Histories, Historical Fiction” takes place at Rothenberg Hall from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 12 and 13; conference registration is $25 (with an optional buffet lunch each day for $20), and tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com/event/2906860. Info: (626) 405-2100. Thehuntington.org, hilarymantel.com