All stories are ghost stories in that they are peopled by the incorporeal, but stories set in the past, containing representations of real people who once lived and breathed, are especially so. Something Hilary Mantel reminds us of in her fourth Reith lecture ‘Can these bones live?‘.
I have very much enjoyed listening to the five lectures, given by a great writer. I printed out the transcripts recently (available on BBC i player) so as to be able to give more consideration to what she said: the talks are too full of insight to absorb in one listening. It was the fourth lecture that I particularly looked forward to, although the whole series was engaging and interesting. But in this one Mantel examines ‘the practical job of resurrection and the process that gets historical fiction on the page‘. Excellent, I thought, anticipating some useful tips on technique.
She began with a justification, that ‘historical fiction’ is not a ‘poor relation’ to ‘literary fiction’, that it places more demands on the writer, not fewer. Then she moves on to ‘research’. ‘You need to know ten times as much as you tell.’ She says, which certainly chimes with my, limited, experience, both with historical detail and with one’s characters ( I have written about it before, in Authenticity & Verisimilitude and Characters ). Primary and secondary sources are useful, though ascertaining the facts is not, she points out, the job of a novelist. That is to ‘recreate the texture of lived experience; to activate the senses and to deepen the reader’s engagement through feeling.’
This, I think, succinctly captures the essence of some of the discussion had during the ‘Past is Another Country’ session at the Clapham Book Festival earlier this year. The conclusion that all the historical novelists reached was that total immersion in period was needed in order to create, or re-create, the world of the book. Mantel says ‘The activity is immersive…..Learn about art, trade, how things are made. Then lift your eyes from the page and learn to look…. a time comes when you can walk around in a room and touch the objects. When you not only know what your characters wore, but you can feel their clothes on your back.’
Interestingly, she advises ‘don’t lie. Don’t go against known facts.’ She acknowledges that, for all her distinguishing of novelist from academic historian, she does not agree that research is something you do after your story is finished, a position some writers take. In this she agrees with Mark Twain ‘First get your facts – ‘ . Though he went on to say ‘- then distort them as you please‘, whereas Mantel clearly thinks this is cheating, a writer’s technique should be flexible enough to accommodate the historical truth, she creates the narrative after all and influences the reader, she shouldn’t need to lie.
So, when I start my next phase of work I’ll be keeping this advice in mind. Oh yes, I’ll also be considering her advice on the usefulness of stupidity, or ignorance in characters, in that it allows exposition ( ‘But Holmes, there’s one thing I don’t understand?’ ). Also, to look for a point of change ‘when they knock down the house on the corner and a new vista is revealed – that’s when your character notices and you can describe‘. Moreover I’ll be seeking ‘the one detail that lights up the page; one line, to perturb or challenge the reader, make him feel acknowledged and yet estranged.‘
If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy Bring Up the Bodies Seduced by History