Plug in those waxy in-the-hole earphones and step inside the cavernous brain of Hilary Mantel, this year’s BBC Reith Lecturer.
Part mystic part historian she inhabits the past in a vivid construct of her own aided by some serious library time and a wicked imagination which leaves critics riling and fans lying prostrate. In all the five lectures as an orator alone she is mesmerising and her soft yet raspy tone scintillates crystalline one-liner nuggets which you feel you must suddenly race to write down, ‘Facts are not truth, though they are part of it.’
Her argument is astute in the defence of historical fiction and its place in a narrative already so subjected to the sieving of historians, teachers and students themselves. It is an obvious point but one defended ardently – that we all tell favourable histories. Perhaps some with unprecedented gore to assure ourselves of the unstoppable progression of human kind, because yes people didn’t all die at 40, or to paint it as if the Tudor courts were a golden era of swift justice and silk bodices.
Picking up Wolf Hall from the bedside heap of novels which surround my parents bed I too enter into a contract with Mantel as she suggests. The contract stipulates that as readers we know these to be fictions and so must criticise and exult within the parameters set by its genre. Nabovkov envisaged meeting his reader on a summit, both sides working in tandem and so too does Mantel. She will do the research, but you must take a leap of historical faith. In Wolf Hall she summarises it thus, ‘Some of these things are true and some of them are lies. But they are all good stories.’
A necromancer, lending her body and her mind to the dead she borrows these words from St Augustine, ‘the dead are invisible, they are not absent.’ As a cynic it seems symtomanic of a person overflowing with imagination, but I implore you to listen and make up your own mind, marvelling at the fissure in which she operates; somewhere in the past.