Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Perversions of history and a surfeit of Tudors

We are a contentious lot! I have been enjoying the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and in my little world I could not imagine the arguments and vitriol this has stimulated in the press! I totally devour historical fiction and love to read the many interpretations by various authors. Afterwards I often research, read or investigate the historical truth (well truth as far as historians allow) and make up my own mind. I like historical accuracy. I try very hard to be historically accurate in the facts I present in my novels-but they are fictionalised history wrapped around some real and incontrovertible facts. This is the way I believe Mantel and co work too-we can rarely KNOW what a historical character felt or emoted, we can only imagine the unpublished reactions to events in history and we can only surmise unrecorded conversations. In other words we fill in the gaps. I would argue that even in the serious tomes which are produced by "historians" there must be some poetic licence and interpretation. Bias must also creep in to some extent but I am shocked at some of the commentary following this massively successful piece of literature.

For starters I was pleased to read a piece by my favourite historical fictioneer-CJ Sansom who specialises in the Tudor period with his infinitely splendid Shardlake series. He analysed the series and made a fairly balanced judgment; inputting some of his own opinions about the anti-hero Cromwell. This foolishly led me onto read the next few reports in the national press. I stumbled across a rather reactionary piece in the Catholic Herald- a bastion of the Catholic press (who knew they had their own press?). This piece was incredible in its bias-in my opinion, I couldn't believe that this man and his story-dead these 500 years was being used to rake up old religious differences. To claim that admiring Cromwell is encouraging anti-Catholicism is a bit OTT! He was a reformer-true and disliked Rome-but nowhere does Mantel suggest he is admirable. She humanises him, but why not? He was ruthless and ambitious-a follower of Machiavellian teaching, but he did have a human side. He wept at the news of Wolsey's death -this is a matter of record, but does that not suggest his humanity could have extended to other situations too? One can perhaps have a grudging admiration for his efficiency and powerful politics; but I am sure nobody out there would really use him as a role model! As for anti-Catholicism... I very much doubt that anyone with those intentions has awaited Mantel's novel to develop those feelings and give vent to their prejudice. The time is too far removed.

I moved onto the next column by a certain David Starkey Esq. I should have know not to read on! I have read some of his history; not all bad but not all good either-but he has spent a lifetime studying history so I assume he does get it right sometimes. He is a right wing chap of course, so in certain instances this must colour his interpretation-after all we all have our own little preferences and nuances. However, he truly slated the "deliberate perversions of history" in Mantel's work (which took 5 years research by the way-so she ain't making it up.) He doesn't appear to understand the term "historical fiction" and berates Mantel for her "total fiction" and "lack of evidence". 

I am with him on accuracy as far as it goes-but there are massive gaps in our knowledge of the conversations, emotional responses and the human snippets of history. We occasionally catch glimpses in the historical record, but as anyone  else who has done a year of a Masters in Historiography will know; all history is interpretation. After all, much early written history comes from one source. Monks. Now as much as I have a soft spot for all things monastic, they didn't exactly have no agenda! They reported according to their standpoint-which was Roman Catholicism. That isn't to say that there is no accurate history in there, but there have been extravagant claims which with hindsight can be seen as a biased interpretation. Whoever writes the history has an interest or a preference -in fact we know that the Tudors tried to rewrite history to prove their validity as a dynasty for example. So as pure as history might seem, it is open to manipulation and propaganda (see Goebbels/Hitler's interpretation of history).

I believe that historical fiction is often an introduction or taster, providing a framework to give us the feel for the time. Certainly, in my "Out of Time" books I present the story as fiction-but I research the nitty gritty and try to accurately portray the times I describe. However, I would not present it as factual. In fact I go to great pains to add an author's note explaining where and why I have taken liberties. I follow the school of Anya Seton and Barbara Erskine, flowing seamlessly (I hope) between historical periods and present day. I use these books in schools in the hope they will interest, inspire and eventually encourage a love of history and will draw the readers to extend their knowledge and engage with the physical history around us. 

So what do I think of Wolf Hall? So far so good! This week I felt there were rather too many ponderous and meaningful silences-with Cromwell's impassive face concealing his calculations for his next move. It captures the period well, it modernises the characters enough for us to connect with and the characterisation is nothing new. We have a slimmer Henry-but he was still an athletic chap at this point, the usual suspects are all there and live up to my own visualisations. The difference is, this story is from Cromwell's perspective and it is that which makes it compelling. Not because I idolise or admire him but because it is his story with Henry and Anne and the rest as the supporting cast for a change. I will read no more commentaries-I gave up when I saw the headline "Damian Lewis took inspiration from Harry and Wills". And I dread to think what lies in "Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day". All I can say is-with all the detractors I think both books and programme are refreshingly different and at least 100% more accurate than "The Tudors" ; where it was thought "less confusing" to amalgamate Henry Vlll's two sisters into one. But then that was from the US not the BBC and despite the advantage of Jonathan Rhys Davies and Henry Cavill and the Hollywood touch, it does not hold a candle (literally) to this production.
Gratuitous photo of Furness Abbey-the 1st large abbey dissolved by Henry Vlll and Thomas Cromwell in 1537

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