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How historical fiction can save the world

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 June 2017, 5.36am

Hilary Mantel, never short of an apposite word, has recently criticised women writers of historical fiction for falsely empowering female characters.

Some might think this a good idea, a much-needed redressing of the balance…but not Mantel.

Anyone squeamish about the difference between the role of men and women in certain historic periods should, she suggests, try their hand at a different job…rather than reworking history so victims are the winner.

So that’s telling us.

Speaking at the Reith Lectures she said:

‘Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale. They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced. Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record. But we must be careful when we speak for others.’

She understands the dilemma facing authors.

‘If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?

This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.’

Er, Jamestown, anybody?

And this, she says, is false.

‘If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.’

And then we arrive at Mantel’s own position.

‘A good novelist,’ she says, ‘will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.’

I was aware of this tension in my recent historical novel, ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover.’

The spy in the story is Jane Whorwood, a strong – and in many ways remarkable - female lead.

Her energy and resourcefulness spill across the years, she was a magnificent chaos.

But there was never any time in her undercover adventures – true on so many levels - when I felt, ‘Hey, it’s the 17th century, but sisters are doing it for themselves!’

I won’t spoil the (quite unbelievable) story.

But while she crossed many boundaries of expected behaviour for a woman, she undoubtedly lived (and suffered) in what Mantel calls ‘the ethical framework of her

She was the king’s closest confidante, well-connected socially, a successful wheeler dealer…and quite powerless.

That’s the truth of the matter and, to that extent, Jane is similar to Mantel’s Anne Boleyn in the ethical framework of the times.

Historical fiction must hang out with history; it can’t go solo.

It sits alongside the research of true historians, working the spaces behind the facts to offer psychological and narrative insight.

‘Tell the truth but tell it slant,’ wrote Emily Dickinson and that nails the task of historical fiction with one crisp blow.

And it’s also a role increasingly appreciated by historians.

‘I remember a conference in the 1990s,’ says Mantel, ‘discussing with a colleague what historians made of historical fiction. He said, ‘It’s like pornography to them –
they think it’s shameful, but they can’t wait to get hold of it.’

We have perhaps moved on a little.

The more open-minded history girls and boys are less prejudiced these days, aware it now means more than historical romance or fiction in tights.

But history’s victims – whether gender or ethnic - are better served in historical fiction by accuracy rather than wish-fulfilment; just as no political party is served by over-optimistic poll forecasts.

Accuracy is best.

The call is not to make the reader feel good but to feel there…in those days, in that moment.

Knowing accurately what has been is the best begetter of change…and how historical fiction might save the world.

(‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’ charts the last eighteen months in the life of Charles 1st, the only English monarch to be executed. How did that happen? It is published by Marylebone House.)

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