Historical Snooping

‘Facts are not truth’: Hilary Mantel explains why fantasy must inhabit historical fiction

Novels about the past prove that history is a blur, not a sequence of sharp photographs.

In a recent talk at the Hay literary festival, Cambridge historian and biographer John Guy said he had seen an increasing number of prospective students citing Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, as supporting evidence for their knowledge of Tudor history.

Guy suggested that Mantel’s as yet incomplete trilogy on Thomas Cromwell’s life and career – the third instalment, The Mirror and the Light, comes out later this year – has become something of a resource for a number of budding history undergraduates, despite the fact that they contain historical inaccuracies (casting, for example, Thomas More as a woman-hating tyrant, Anne Boleyn as a female devil and getting the wrong sheriff of London to lead More to his execution).

The Guardian quotes Guy as saying that this “blur between fact and fiction is troubling”. In fact, Guy’s comments on the blurring of fact and fiction, and related concerns of authenticity, do read as a worrying prognosis. In the age of Trump and fake news, it seems particularly important that we call bullshit on so-called “alternative facts” and place an unquestionable fix on fiction.

Play

Yet historical fiction, in all its varieties, can and frequently does raise vital questions about how we write, and conceptualise, historical processes. Indeed, when writers of historical fiction make stuff up about the past, they sometimes do so in an effort to sharpen, rather than dull, our capacities to separate fact from fiction.

‘There are no endings’

In the first of five Reith Lectures to be aired on BBC Radio 4, Mantel similarly argues that in death “we enter into fiction” and the lives of the dead are given shape and meaning by the living – whether that be the historian or the historical novelist. As the narrator of Bring up the Bodies puts it: “There are no endings.” Endings are, instead, “all beginnings”, the foundation of interpretative acts.

In Mantel’s view, the past is not something we passively consume, either, but that which we actively “create” in each act of remembrance. That’s not to say, of course, that Mantel is arguing that there are no historical “facts” or that the past didn’t happen. Rather, she reminds us that the evidence we use to give narrative shape to the past is “always partial”, and often “incomplete”. “Facts are not truth”, Mantel argues, but “the record of what’s left on the record.” It is up to the living to interpret, or, indeed, misinterpret, those accounts.

'Wolf Hall' won the Booker Prize in 2009.
'Wolf Hall' won the Booker Prize in 2009.

In this respect the writer of historical fiction is not working in direct opposition to the professional historian: both must think creatively about what remains, deploying – especially when faced with gaps and silences in the archive – “selection, elision, artful arrangement”, literary manoeuvres more closely associated with novelist Philippa Gregory than with Guy the historian. However, exceptional examples from both fields should, claims Mantel, be “self-questioning” and always willing to undermine their own claims to authenticity.

Richard’s teeth

Mantel’s own theorising of history writing shares much with that other great Tudor storyteller: William Shakespeare.

While Shakespeare’s Richard III (1592), can be read as a towering achievement in historical propaganda – casting Richard, the last of the Plantagenets, as an evil usurper, and Richmond, first Tudor king and Elizabeth I’s grandfather, as prophetic saviour – the play invites serious speculation about the idiosyncratic nature of historical truth.

Take this exchange in Act II Scene IV of the play, which comes just before the doomed young princes are led to the tower. Here, the younger of the two, Richard, duke of York, asks his grandmother, the duchess of York, about stories he’s heard about his uncle’s birth:

York: Marry, they say my uncle grew so fast
That he could gnaw a crust at two hours old…

Duchess of York: I pray thee, pretty York, who told thee this?

York: Grandam, his nurse.

Duchess of York: His nurse? Why, she was dead ere thou wast born.

York: If ’twere not she, I cannot tell who told me.

Fresh in the knowledge that his uncle’s nurse died before he was born, the boy has no idea who told him the story of his uncle’s gnashing baby teeth. Has he misremembered his source, blurring the lines between fact and fiction? Was the boy’s uncle born a monster, or is that a convenient fiction his enemies might wish to tell themselves? And why on earth would Shakespeare bother to include this digression?

'Bring up the Bodies' won the Booker Prize in 2012.
'Bring up the Bodies' won the Booker Prize in 2012.

In all other respects, Richard III invites straightforward historical divisions between good (the Tudors) and evil (the Plantagenet dynasty). But here, subversive doubts creep in about the provenance of the stories we tell about real historical people, with the “historical fact” briefly revealed as a messy, fallible concept, always on the edge of make-believe.

Near-history

Richard III reminds us that historical facts can be fictionalised, but also that the fictional can just as easily turn into fact. Mantel’s Tudor cycle has been haunted by similar anxieties. In the often terrifying world of Henry VIII’s court, her novels show how paranoia breeds rumour, how rumour bleeds into and shapes fact and, as a result, “how difficult it is to get at the truth”. History isn’t just a different country for Mantel, it’s something intimately tied to the fictions we cling to.

And indeed in Wolf Hall that blurred relationship between fact and fiction, history and myth, is often front and centre. In Wolf Hall the past is somewhere above, between, and below the official record. History is not to be found in “coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions.” Instead it’s in “a woman’s sigh”, or the smell she “leaves on the air”, a “hand pulling close the bed curtain”; all those things that are crucially absent from the archive.

Brought to life: Thomas Cromwell. Hans Holbein via the Frick Collection.
Brought to life: Thomas Cromwell. Hans Holbein via the Frick Collection.

The fact of history’s ephemerality opens a “gap” for the fictional, into which we “pour [our] fears, fantasies, desires”. As Mantel has asked elsewhere: “Is there a firm divide between myth and history, fiction and fact: or do we move back and forth on a line between, our position indeterminate and always shifting?”

For the Canadian novelist, Guy Gavriel Kay, fantasy is a necessary precondition of all forms of historical writing: “When we work with distant history, to a very great degree, we are all guessing.”

This is why Kay is at leave to employ the conventions of fantasy to deal with the past, transposing real historical events, peoples, and places – medieval Spain and Roderigo Diaz (El Cid) in The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), for example, or the Viking invasions of Britain in The Last Light of the Sun (2004) – into the realm of the fantastical.

Kay researches (he provides bibliographies in all his books) and then unravels history and historical evidence, putting a “quarter turn” on the assumed facts: renaming historical figures, reversing and collapsing the order of known events, substituting invented religions for real ones, introducing magic into the history of Renaissance Europe, or China. He has described the result of this process as “near-history”: alternative pasts that are at once radically strange and weirdly familiar.

Like Mantel, Kay’s (near-)historical fictions can be read as less an effort to evade the blur between fact and fiction than to honestly point towards that blur as a condition of history itself. After all, history is debatable and often impossible to verify. It’s a reminder, perhaps, that we sometimes need the tropes of fiction to smooth over those complexities, or render them legible, truthful, in the contemporary moment. We need metaphors, and similes, so that the dead can speak and act, live and die.

Michael Durrant, Lecturer in Early Modern Literature, Bangor University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.