THE HISTORICAL NOVEL
WRITERS AND HISTORIANS
For the aspiring writer, reading is an apprenticeship. For me it was one that began in childhood. Like most children, I knew what I wanted to hear or read. So, to some extent, children who like stories are already literary critics by the time they go to school. As we grow older, we begin to analyse and study. Eventually we find that books provide not only entertainment but templates for our own writing.
The craft of writing is inevitably linked to reading; the need to see how characters play out, why a particular point of view was chosen and how it works, the complexities of plot. But, apart from the technical aspects, there is the joy of finding a well written passage, a snappy piece of dialogue or a startling and effective image. It is these that make a book enthralling, the magical word web that binds you to the writer and from which there is no escape until you reach the end.
With the historical novel, it would seem that there is something of a dichotomy between the writer, who wants to concentrate on the story through a free flow of imagination, and the historian who must adhere to the known facts. To produce a successful historical novel, the author must embody both creative vision and accuracy.
In this commentary, I intend to study the work of three writers, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and C. J. Sansom. For the present purpose I am defining them all as ‘historians’ on the grounds that a passionate interest in the subject and a willingness to research every bit as diligently as their more academic contemporaries is qualification enough.
For the true writer the vision must come first. There must be an inner desire to explore the less trodden paths of the psyche and develop characters to depths which go well beyond the historical record. However, these writers still have to show us a world gone by and provide an authentic background for the action to take place. We, the readers, must be able to smell the stink of the streets, taste the food, and feel the scratch of sackcloth against our skin. Characters must move with confidence through their world. It is where they belong. Every thought, word and deed must be appropriate to the period. Hilary Mantel clearly demonstrates this in her acclaimed (and prizewinning) portrayal of Thomas Cromwell which never loses its vision or its grip on the past.
Both Philippa Gregory and C. J. Sansom have PhD’s in history. But, when it comes to writing, this may also be a disadvantage; the shackles of academic discipline can be hard to lose. Nevertheless, both have managed to balance both fact and fiction in their novels with great success. C J Sansom, whose characters are mainly fictional, says:
‘I have only one firm rule; never, if at all possible, depart from established historical fact.’1
This is very good advice, the key word of course, is established.
Philippa Gregory, whose work relates to real people and events, makes two very interesting comments in the introduction to her history Women of the Cousins’ War.
1) ‘The historical novelist who is serious about his craft will speculate just like the historian falling back on the most likely of the facts.’2
2) ‘Fiction is not wholly the creation of an imaginary world anymore than history is the total description of a real one.’3
Characters in the historical novel must think and act in the spirit of the time, although their motivations may seem surprisingly modern. The big themes, love, hate, revenge and so on, have no time restrictions, which helps the writer to create a living, breathing person that the reader can understand. A more difficult problem for the novelist is that the readers may already have their own perception of the historical character and will know the outcome of events. Hilary Mantel has broken through this barrier through her deeply intimate portrayal of Thomas Cromwell.
Philippa Gregory has taken a different, but equally unconventional approach, in her handling of the Plantagenet queens, the red and the white. In two separate but linked novels, she tells the same story from two opposing viewpoints. This has great dramatic effect which no doubt has lead to the very successful BBC1 production4 The White Queen televised in 10 episodes this summer. It was interesting to see how the various screenwriters made subtle changes to Gregory’s interpretation of both characters and events.
Hilary Mantel also works around real people from the past, though in a very different way. She turns the received perception of Cromwell on its head. To make him more human she grounds him in his own history, the tragedies of his life and the lessons he has learned along the way. For the work of Hilary Mantel, I shall be looking specifically at Bring up the Bodies, the second book in the Wolf Hall trilogy.5
1 Sansom, C.J. How I Write
Available from http://www.cjsansobooks.com/how-i-write
2 Gregory, P., Baldwin, D. & Jones, M., 2012. The Women of the Cousins’ War: Introduction. Simon & Schuster Ltd. London
3 Gregory, P., Baldwin, D. & Jones, M., 2012. The Women of the Cousins’ War: Introduction. Location 106, Kindle Edition, Simon & Schuster Ltd. London
4 The White Queen, BBC1 production in 10 episodes from 8th June to 18th August 2013
5 Gregory, P., 2010. The White Queen Page 346/Location 6010, 1st ed., Pocket Books. Kindle Edition