The day is for the living
Hilary Mantel on writing historical fiction
BBC Reith Lectures 2017, part one
St Augustine says, “the dead are invisible, they are not absent.” You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true. We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us. History, and science help us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.
There’s a poem by WH Auden, called As I Walked Out One Evening:
The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert sighs in the bed
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead
The purpose of my first lecture is to ask if this lane is two-way street. In imagination, we chase the dead, shouting, “come back!” We may suspect that the voices we hear are an echo of our own, and the movement we see is our own shadow. But we sense the dead have a vital force still — they have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding. In these talks, I hope to show there are techniques we can use. I don’t claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.
My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims. My own family history is a meagre one. An audience member once said to me, “I come from a long line of nobodies.” I agreed: me too. I have no names beyond my maternal great-grandmother — but let me introduce her, as an example, because she reached through time from the end of the nineteenth century to form my sense of who I am, at this point in the twenty-first: even nobodies can do this.
She was the daughter of a Patrick, the wife of a Patrick, the mother of a Patrick; her name was Catherine O’Shea, and she spent her early life in Portlaw, a mill village near Waterford in the south of Ireland. Portlaw was an artificial place, purpose-built by a Quaker family called Malcolmson, whose business was shipping and corn, cotton and flax. The mill opened in 1826. At one time Portlaw was so busy that it imported labour from London. The Malcolmsons were moral capitalists and keen on social control. Their village was laid out on a plan ideal for surveillance, built so that one policeman, stationed in the square could look down all five streets. The Malcolmsons founded a Thrift Society and a Temperance Society and paid their workers partly in cardboard tokens, exchangeable in the company shop. When a regional newspaper suggested this was a form of slavery, the Malcolmsons sued them, and won.
As the nineteenth century ended, textiles declined and the Malcolmsons lost their money. The mill closed in 1904 — by which time my family, like many others, had begun a shuffling stage-by-stage emigration.
Two of Catherine’s brothers went to America, and in time-honoured fashion were never heard from again. Catherine was a young married woman when she came to England — to another mill village, Hadfield, on the edge of the Peak District. Like Portlaw, it was green and wet and shadowed by hills. As far as I know, she never left it. She must have wondered, does the whole world look like this?
Her first home was in a street called Waterside — for many years the scene of ritual gang fights on Friday nights between the locals and the incomers. I know hardly anything about Catherine’s life. I suppose that when a woman has ten children, she ceases to have a biography. One photograph of her survives. She is standing on the doorstep of a stone-built terraced house. Her skirt covers her waist to ankle, her torn shawl covers the rest. I can’t read her face, or relate it to mine.
But I imagine I know where the picture was taken. There was a row of houses which fronted Waterside, their backs within the mill enclosure. In time the houses were knocked down, but the facades had to stand, because they were part of the mill wall. The windows and the doorways were infilled by blocks of stone. By the time I was alive to see it, this new stone was the same colour as the mill: black. But you could see where the doors and windows had been. When I was a child these houses struck me as sinister: an image of deception and loss.
The door of a house should lead to a home. But behind this door was the public space of the mill yard. By studying history — let us say, the emigrant experience, or the textile trade — I could locate Catherine in the public sphere. But I have no access to her thoughts. My great-grandmother couldn’t read or write. One saying of hers survives. ‘The day is for the living, and the night is for the dead.’
I assume it was what she said to keep the ten children in order after lights-out. After her early years, as I understand it, Catherine no longer worked in the mill. But I am told she had a certain role in her community: she was the woman who laid out the dead.
Why do we do this — or employ someone to do it? Why do we wash their faces and dress them in familiar clothes? We do it for the sake of the living. Even if we have no religious belief, we still believe what has been human should be treated as human still; witness the indignation if a corpse is desecrated, and the agony of those who have no bodies to bury. It is almost the definition of being human: we are the animals who mourn. One of the horrors of genocide is the mass grave, the aggregation of the loving, living person into common, compound matter, stripped of a name.
Commemoration is an active process, and often a contentious one. When we memorialize the dead, we are sometimes desperate for the truth, and sometimes for a comforting illusion. We remember individually, out of grief and need. We remember as a society, with a political agenda — we reach into the past for the foundation myths of our tribe, our nation, and found them on glory, or found them on grievance, but we seldom found them on cold facts.
Nations are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our forefathers were giants, of one kind or another. This is how we live in the world: romancing. Once the romance was about aristocratic connections and secret status, the fantasy of being part of an elite. Now the romance is about deprivation, dislocation, about the distance covered between there and here: between, let’s say, where my great-grandmother was and where I am today. The facts have less traction, less influence on what we are and what we do, than the self-built fictions.
As soon as we die, we enter into fiction. Just ask two different family members to tell you about someone recently gone, and you will see what I mean. Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted. When we remember — as psychologists so often tell us — we don’t reproduce the past, we create it. Surely, you may say — some truths are non-negotiable, the facts of history guide us. And the records do indeed throw up some facts and figures that admit no dispute. But the historian Patrick Collinson wrote:
“It is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Because, of course, 99% of the evidence, above all, unrecorded speech, is not available to us.”
Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it — information is not knowledge. And history is not the past — it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it — a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It’s no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It’s the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.
Historians are sometimes scrupulous and self-aware, sometimes careless or biased. Yet in either case, and hardly knowing which is which, we cede them moral authority. They don’t consciously fictionalize, and we believe they are trying to tell the truth. But historical novelists face — as they should — questions about whether their work is legitimate. No other sort of writer has to explain their trade so often. The reader asks, is this story true?
That sounds like a simple question, but we have to unwrap it. Often the reader is asking, can I check this out in a history book? Does it agree with other accounts? Would my old history teacher recognize it?
It may be that a novelist’s driving idea is to take apart the received version. But readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn — and if you challenge it, it’s as if you’re taking away their childhoods. For a person who seeks safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look. Any worthwhile history is a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is. If the reader asks the writer, “Have you evidence to back your story?” the answer should be yes: but you hope your the reader will be wise to the many kinds of evidence there are, and how they can be used.
It’s not possible to lay down a rule or a standard of good practice, because there are so many kinds of historical fiction. Some have the feel of documentary, others are close to fantasy. Not every author concerns herself with real people and real events. In my current cycle of Tudor novels I do, and closely track the historical record so I can report the outer world faithfully — though I also tell my reader the rumours, and suggest that sometimes the news is falsified.
But my chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives. From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel. In any novel, once it’s finished, you can’t separate fact from fiction — it’s like trying to return mayonnaise to oil and egg yolk. If you want to know how it was put together line by line, your only hope, I’m afraid, is to ask the author.
For this reason, some readers are deeply suspicious of historical fiction. They say that by its nature it’s misleading. But I argue, a reader knows the nature of the contract. When you choose a novel to tell you about the past, you are putting in brackets the historical accounts — which may or may not agree with each other — and actively requesting a subjective interpretation. You’re not buying a replica, or even a faithful photographic reproduction — you’re buying a painting, with the brush strokes left in. To the historian, the reader says, “Take this document, object, person — tell me what it means.” To the novelist he says, “Now tell me what else it means.”
The novelist knows her place. She works away at the point where what is enacted meets what is dreamed, where politics meets psychology, where private and public meet. I stand with my great-grandmother, on the doorstep. I break through the false wall. On the other side I connect my personal story with the collective story. I move through the domestic space and emerge into the buzzing economic space of the mill yard — the market place, the gossip shop, the street and the parliament house.
I began writing fiction in the 1970s, at the point — paradoxically — where I discovered I wanted to be a historian. I thought that because of my foolishness at the age of 16, not knowing what to put on my university applications, I’d missed my chance, and so if I wanted to work with the past, I would have to become a novelist — which of course, any fool can do.
For the first year or two, I was subject to a cultural cringe. I felt I was morally inferior to historians and artistically inferior to real novelists, who could do plots — whereas I had only to find out what happened.
In those days historical fiction wasn’t respected or respectable. It meant historical romance. If you read a brilliant novel like I, Claudius, you didn’t taint it with the genre label, you just thought of it as literature. So I was shy about naming what I was doing. All the same I began. I wanted to find a novel I liked, about the French Revolution. I couldn’t, so I started making one.
I wasn’t after quick results. I was prepared to look at all the material I could find, even though I knew it would take years, but what I wasn’t prepared for were the gaps, the erasures, the silences where there should have been evidence.
These erasures and silences made me into a novelist, but at first I found them simply disconcerting. I didn’t like making things up, which put me at a disadvantage. In the end I scrambled through to an interim position that satisfied me. I would make up a man’s inner torments, but not, for instance, the colour of his drawing room wallpaper.
Because his thoughts can only be conjectured. Even if he was a diarist or a confessional writer, he might be self-censoring. But the wallpaper — someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and colour, and if I kept on pursuing it I might find out. Then — when my revolutionary comes home weary from a 24 hour debate in the National Convention and hurls his dispatch case into a corner, I would be able to look around at the room, through his eyes. When my book eventually came out, after many years, one snide critic — who was putting me in my place, as a woman writing about men doing serious politics — complained there was a lot in it about wallpaper. Believe me, I thought, hand on heart — there was not nearly enough.
In time I understood one thing: that you don’t become a novelist to become a spinner of entertaining lies: you become a novelist so you can tell the truth. I start to practice my trade at the point where the satisfactions of the official story break down. Some stories bear retelling. They compel retelling. Take the last days of the life of Anne Boleyn. You can tell that story and tell it. Put it through hundreds of iterations. But still, there seems to be a piece of the puzzle missing. You say, I’m sure I can do better next time. You start again. You look at the result — and realize, once again, that while you were tethering part of the truth, another part of it has fled into the wild.
However, it took time for me to get to the Tudors. For most of my career I wrote about odd and marginal people. They were psychic. Or religious. Or institutionalized. Or social workers. Or French. My readers were a small and select band, until I decided to march on to the middle ground of English history and plant a flag.
To researchers, the Tudor era is still a focus of hot dispute, but to the public it’s light entertainment. And there were shelves full of novels about Henry VIII and his wives. But a novelist can’t resist an unexplored angle. Change the viewpoint, and the story is new. Among authors of literary fiction, no one was fighting me for this territory. Everyone was busy cultivating their outsider status.
For many years we have been concerned with decentering the grand narrative. We have become romantic about the rootless, the broken, those without a voice — and sceptical about great men, dismissive of heroes. That’s how our enquiry into the human drama has evolved — first the gods go, and then the heroes, and then we are left with our grubby, compromised selves.
As you gain knowledge and technique as a writer — as you gain a necessary self-consciousness about your trade — you lose some of the intensity of your childhood relationship with the past. When I was a child the past felt close and it felt personal. Beneath every history, there’s another history — there is, at least, the life of the historian. That’s why I invited my great grandmother to this lecture — because I know my life inflects my work. Historical fiction comes out of greed for experience. You can regard all novels as psychological compensation for lives unlived. Violent curiosity drives us on, takes us far from our time, far from our shore, and often beyond our compass.
The pursuit of the past makes you aware, whether you are novelist or historian, of the dangers of your own fallibility and inbuilt bias. The writer of history is a walking anachronism, a displaced person, using today’s techniques to try to know things about yesterday that yesterday didn’t know itself. He must try to work authentically, hearing the words of the past, but communicating in a language the present understands. The historian, the biographer, the writer of fiction work within different constraints, but in a way that’s complementary, not opposite. The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts. Even the driest, most data-driven research involves an element of interpretation. Deep research in the archives can be reported in tabular form and lists, by historians talking to each other. But to talk to their public, they use the same devices as all storytellers — selection, elision, artful arrangement. The nineteenth century historian Lord Macauley said, “History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason.” So how do we teach history? Is it a set of stories, or a set of skills? Both, I think; we need to pass on the stories, but also impart the skills to hack the stories apart and make new ones.
To retrieve history we need rigour, integrity, unsparing devotion and an impulse to scepticism. To retrieve the past, we require all those virtues — and something more. If we want added value — to imagine not just how the past was, but what it felt like, from the inside — we pick up a novel. The historian and the biographer follow a trail of evidence, usually a paper trail. The novelist does that too, and then performs another act — puts the past back into process, into action — frees the people from the archive and lets them run about, ignorant of their fates, with all their mistakes unmade.
I am here because, as Grayson Perry said in an earlier Reith Lecture, I’m one of the foot soldiers, one of the practitioners. We can’t leave theory aside: it is impossible now to write an intelligent historical novel that is not also a historiographical novel, one which considers its own workings. But I have tried to find a way to talk about the past without, day by day, using terms like ‘historiography’. I became a novelist to test the virtue in words that my great-grandmother would recognize, from that journey she made, Ireland to England, from one damp green place to another: words like thread and loom and warp and weft, words like dockside, and ship, and sea, and stone, and road, and home.
— Hilary Mantel
The Reith Lectures, the BBC’s flagship annual lecture series, began in 1948, with Bertrand Russell’s ‘Authority and the Individual’. You can listen to most of the lectures on the BBC Radio 4 web site, from Grayson Perry to Stephen Hawking to Aung San Suu Kyi to Wole Soyinka and Marina Warner. Listen to them all here.