Saturday, September 04, 2021

History and the novel

I admire Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall immensely. I'm less admiring of some recent claims of hers that seem to suggest it is both a novel and something other than a novel.  

Historians have previously expressed concern that the books are seen as fact by some of their students.

It is not a worry Mantel has much time for. “I stick as closely as I can to the historical record. You won’t go far wrong if you want to know about Thomas Cromwell by reading those books.

“It is not a locked box to which only historians have the key. ...
Historians, Mantel suggested, had done a poor job until Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “great biography came along as a sort of complement to the work I’ve done in fiction.”

The implication seems to be that novelists and nonfiction writers are doing much the same thing, that a historical novel, done well, can also replicate what a nonfiction treatment of the same subject can do. 

But the jobs are incompatible. The novelist imagines a reality, and tries to evoke it so vividly that it seems real. If that is successfully done, if the novel feels true, it succeeds. Agreat novel imagines reality brilliantly. You can judge if a novel is great, but it is a fool's errand to try assessing its evidence, how it weighs its evidence, and its conclusions from the evidence against whatever is known about the real characters and situations it evokes. But it is impossible to test imagination for accuracy. 

I've heard it argued that nonfiction is about facts and fiction about "truth." But nonfiction is not facts. It's a search for the truth, an endless search, based on the incomplete and possibly misleading evidence, You are entitled to form conclusions about the work's accuracy by assessing its sources and its interpretations from them.

As I've said before, Hilary Mantel has written a great novel about Thomas Cromwell in which he is a hero, and Peter Shaeffer wrote a great play about him in which he is a villain. But it's not a question of which one is right and which wrong.The greatness of their fictions does not depend on the literal truth or accuracy of their interpretations. Even if you wanted to judge their accuracy, fiction by its nature doesn't provide the materials for the task. 

If you want to seek the truth of events, study events. If you seek ways to imagine realities, read (or write) fiction. They are both worthwhile endeavours, but not interchangeable.

I still think Wolf Hall is a terrific novel  (I was less struck by its sequel Bringing Up the Bodies, perhaps because Wolf Hall seemed entirely original, and the sequel more of the same. I have not read The Mirror and the Light.) If I wanted to pursue some conclusion about the hero/villain status of Thomas Cromwell and his antagonist Thomas More, I should probably start with the MacCullough biography Mantel recommends,



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