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 

Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.