The best is history

Later than most readers, perhaps, I have developed Wolf Hall mania. Hilary Mantel’s novel, a Man Booker Prize-winner last year, is a transfiguring experience. You think you know about the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon, his remarriage to Anne Boleyn, the coming of the English reformation, the fall of Thomas More. But reading this book ­– which, unlike most costume dramas, is also a proper novel about ambition, politics, love, sex, fear of illness – you feel you never knew that strange land at all until Mantel showed you round.

For the few days it takes to read it, you are in the rather mad dream that Henry VIII’s London is more real than Elizabeth II’s. You feel the mist coming off the river as you take barges between More’s house in Chelsea and the Palace of Whitehall. Before, scenes from Henry’s marriage crisis were painted in sepia, or in the very faintest of washes. Now they stand out sharp and clear, like a Holbein. Incidentally, Hans Holbein is one of the characters in the novel. Thomas Cromwell, an unlovely man both physically and morally, is the book’s central figure. It was bold to make a hero of this brute of a man, but Mantel succeeds. There is a wonderful scene when Cromwell is confronted by his finished portrait by Holbein. He says it makes him look like a murderer. “Didn’t you know?” asks his son. Mantel manages in prose what Holbein managed in paint. These are not characters in a history book, but people.

Mantel is not just the author of a masterpiece. She is also the spearhead for a much-needed economic recovery in the publishing industry. It is said that the director Alexander Korda hit on the idea of The Private Life of Henry VIII, his blockbustingly successful 1933 film starring Charles Laughton, while sitting in a London taxi and hearing the cabbie trill: “Oi’m Enerey the Eighth oi am, oi am”. Judging by the number of historical novels being published this summer, it seems that several publishers experienced similar revelations on observing the success of Wolf Hall.

I would recommend two tales both published this month, both preoccupied with the wives of Henry VIII. James Forrester, also known as the scholar Dr Ian Mortimer, who is the author of several innovative books on medieval history , has written Sacred Treason (Headline Review), a really absorbing thriller set around the puzzle of Anne Boleyn’s first marriage. Before she married Henry VIII Anne was betrothed to Lord Percy, son and heir of the Earl of Northumberland; if she consummated the union, this would mean that her daughter Elizabeth I was illegitimate on her mother’s side and technically should have been barred from inheriting the throne. (Never mind what you think about her legitimacy on her father’s side and the whole Mantel-ish question of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.) In Forrester’s version a real-life chronicler, Henry Machyn, discovers the queen’s illegitimacy and entrusts his book to William Harley, the Clarenceux herald.

Forrester writes gripping fiction, with realistic characters who retain their historical plausibility. So, too, does Peter Walker in The Courier’s Tale (Bloomsbury), a splendid debut about Michael Throckmorton’s endless journeys across Europe on behalf of his master, the future Cardinal Pole. Again, the object of the quest is to find reasons to doubt the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Philippa Gregory has written seven books on the Tudors, most famously The Other Boleyn Girl (2002), about the rivalry between Anne Boleyn and her lesser-known sister, Mary. But her current series of novels focuses on the Wars of the Roses and The Red Queen, published this week (Simon & Schuster) is the follow-up to her extremely popular The White Queen (2009), which tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage into the House of York, her rise to queen consort and defence of the family’s right to the throne. The Red Queen focuses on Margaret Beaufort, heiress to the Red Rose of Lancaster, and her efforts to regain the rule from the House of York.

Yet, reading The Red Queen, I never felt that I was really in the world she depicted, as I was with Wolf Hall. It was more as if I was watching a bodice-ripping costume-drama with a boring historical “voice-over” explaining the often scarcely penetrable intricacies of the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to the English throne. Leave it to Shakespeare was my thought upon finishing The Red Queen, though I know thousands will not agree – The White Queen sold more than 180,000 copies during the five months following its publication.

Why is historical fiction currently so popular with readers? Though Gregory researches her books punctiliously, she believes that her readers don’t read novels such as The White Queen “as history”. Rather, it’s the experience of “a woman speaking from the urgency of the novel”.

According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, who in addition to acclaimed histories such as Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), has written Sashenka (2008), a deft piece of fiction set in tempestuous 20th-century Russia: “Real stories – whether in pure fiction or historical – have a certain indefinable power; we are endlessly curious about the past and hungry for learning that we hope will illuminatethe present.”

If reading a work of history is like being guided round an old house by an expert, reading a good historical novel offers the illusion that we have stepped back in time to inhabit that house with its original residents. But is it an illusion we should allow ourselves? How cavalier with the truth should writers be? How should we read historical fiction? Sebag Montefiore says: “It should be read as fiction and judged as good or bad on that basis and not as a hybrid or a separate genre – it is fiction set in the past and should not be read as history. But it is certainly a way to learn about historical epochs, great events and faraway places ... War and Peace (1869) is a good example. It is inaccurate as history – as shown by Dominic Lieven’s recent Russia against Napoleon – but a wonderful introduction to the times. Above all, it is a brilliant piece of fiction.”

The shock of Wolf Hall is twofold. On the one hand, it is the shock of time travel, the sense that these people are so real. But it is also the shock of historical revisionism. Those who have enjoyed Robert Bolt’s 1954 play A Man for All Seasons have come to revere Thomas More, echoing Dr Johnson’s view that More was “the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced”. It will be an emotional upheaval, then, to read Mantel’s account of a cruel, rather sinister More, who abuses his intellect, whose dear old Dad is in fact a tremendous bore, and whose relationship with his daughter Meg is a bit kinky. Cromwell, whom I had always hated, now comes alive as a bruised bruiser, still in love with his dead wife, shrewdly aware of the whole scene – not just of the characters of Henry VIII’s court, but of the implications of it all. Here it is Cromwell who understands what is happening to England. It is a struggle Hegel would have relished. Cromwell is on history’s side, More is its enemy.

The Red Queen also challenges a long-held historical view – that Richard III murdered the little Princes in the Tower of London in 1483. Instead, Gregory subscribes to the line, popularised by Josephine Tey in her novel The Daughter of Time (1951), that Henry Tudor was the villain. Gregory told me that most modern scholarship points in this direction, though when I asked for evidence that Margaret Beaufort – Henry’s mother – had a hand in the murder, she said that since most modern historians saw Richard III as the least likely murderer, you had to find someone who was guilty – and why not Margaret?

Here, perhaps, we touch upon what makes historical fiction successful. I have no idea whether Mantel’s More is a fair picture but because her novel is so realistic, I am prepared to believe her, just as I accept the “reality” of Shakespeare’s history plays, regardless of whether they are true to history. Only when historical novels are unconvincing as fully-rounded pictures of human life do I start to ask the kind of pedantic questions I asked myself about The Red Queen.

Some writers have gone further in their interpretations of past events. In Young Adolf (1978) the late Beryl Bainbridge had one slender piece of fact: that Hitler’s half-brother lived in Liverpool. She imagined the future Führer, shy, and utterly baffled, coming to England and working as a waiter at the Adelphi hotel. It is a masterpiece of invention.

Peter Ackroyd went further still. In his most famous novel, Hawksmoor (1985), in which the churches of post-Great Fire London become the settings for a series of Satanist killings, the plot hangs on the famous architect having been a pederastic murderer – for which there is not one shred of historical evidence.

The objection to such fiction is different from the question of the interpretation of character. Mantel does not, so far as I am aware, invent damaging “facts” about More: she merely sees the same facts as Bolt did, or Ackroyd did in his fine biography of More, and hates what they admire. In Hawksmoor, however (though the architect is called Dyer, he is obviously Hawksmoor), a grossly damaging character flaw is simply invented. This is what makes some historians, such as Antonia Fraser, unable to suspend disbelief when reading a historical novel.

Fraser, author of the history The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992), tells me that “most historical novelists sooner or later claim to have discovered something that historians have missed”. She does not read much historical fiction. “I turn into an irritating person with this kind of thing,” she says, “asking grumpy questions like: Where did she/he get that? And exclaiming: ‘Rubbish!’”

The fantasist who uses history is perhaps distorting truth. But so is the scholar who thinks that the men and women of the past can be recreated by learning alone, without the alchemy of empathy. In any case, the historical purist who eschews fiction and only wants to read “proper history” is possibly under the delusion that such a thing as objective historical analysis exists.

Modern history began in the 18th century with Gibbon, Voltaire, Hume and Smollett, all opinionated men who, clever as they were, had contempt for the past and an ignorance of its texture, its quality of what a great critic called “felt life”. The Gibbon-Voltaire school never asked, for example, what people wore in the past. It was a contemporary figure, Joseph Strutt, an antiquary more than an historian, who pioneered the history of armour and costume, and realised that people in the past wore different clothes. Until then, there had never been a performance of Shakespeare in “historical costume”.

When Strutt died in 1802, leaving unfinished a bad bit of Gothic-historical fantasy called Queenhoo-Hall: A Romance, its London publishers looked for someone to finish it. They asked the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott, and caused a revolution in literature. Scott, who was deeply learned in Scottish poetry, folklore, genealogy and the local history, set his imagination to work. Waverley (1814), which tells of a young English army officer’s embroilment in the Jacobite rebellions of the 1740s, was the first work to emerge, followed by a stream of reconstructions of 18th-century Scottish history –Rob Roy (1817), Redgauntlet (1824) – as well as medieval romances such as Ivanhoe (1819). These books took Europe by storm and Scott inspired the great vogue for fiction as a way of investigating the past. Without Scott, Victor Hugo would never have written Les Misérables (1862); Alessandro Manzoni I Promessi Sposi (1827); Tolstoy War and Peace.

These books surely contribute not merely to our enjoyment but to our historical understanding. Mantel, too, has shown that the phenomenon of genuine historical understanding conveyed by art still has effectiveness. Perhaps, then, the ideal holiday reading would be one history book for every historical novel – David Starkey’s volumes on Henry VIII, alongside Wolf Hall. Or you might decide that you have had enough of “Enerey the Eighth” for one summer and turn back to War and Peace.

AN Wilson is author of ‘The Victorians’ and of ‘Winnie and Wolf’, a historical fiction about Hitler and the Wagners

‘To lie deliberately about the past’

In 1998 I was asked to write about the 16th century diarist Henry Machyn for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and, since reading his original eyewitness chronicle of events in London between 1550 and 1563, I have been inventing the story that appears in my first novel Sacred Treason, writes James Forrester.

But how does a trained historian, which I am, write fiction? With difficulty. Anyone with a PhD in history has spent at least seven years being told by university lecturers always to “err on the side of caution” and to suspect all evidence for the past – to the extent that many academic books are more concerned with what we do not know than what we do. The idea of deliberately creating scenarios, events and characters that did not exist in reality is anathema. However, the biggest hurdle a historian has is persuading people that he or she can write a novel.

There is a good reason for this general suspicion. Historians are mostly very poor writers. Nothing in a university education teaches us how to write history well, let alone do anything more imaginative. Most historians baulk at the thought because there is nothing firm for them to hold on to, nothing certain and therefore nothing indisputably true. We have to make a huge leap of faith to realise the “truth” that makes historical fiction worthwhile is a deeper, more subtle truth than in history, concerned with the truths of life experience, not facts.

Personally, the idea of writing fiction was attractive because it was a real test of my skills as a writer. I have written biographies that deliberately eschew academic objectivity – such as The Fears of Henry IV – not for the obvious negative reason (academic objectivity is a myth) but for a positive one: by sympathising with a leader one can start to learn why he did what he did. I have also written history in the present tense (The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England) and day-by-day history (1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory).

Fiction was, in many ways, another step along these lines: to start to lie deliberately about the past in order to illustrate some things about the moments of doubt and fear that people face and to illustrate something of my understanding of what it was like to live in a more religious age. At the same time it was good fun to think up a plot. It was even more fun to develop a series of characters.

Where next? I have an idea that historical fiction is only just beginning to move forward. We may be able to use history and fiction in conjunction to say things about the vast sweep of mankind’s experience across time. Breaking down the genre stereotypes is the next major hurdle: showing that historical fiction can be more than just a subset of fiction. After that, anything is possible.

James Forrester is the author of ‘Sacred Treason’ and the pen name of the historian Dr Ian Mortimer

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