Magazine article The Spectator

Making History

Magazine article The Spectator

Making History

Article excerpt

Wolf Hall is a work of the imagination - like all the best history

In a recent interview, the celebrity historian and Tudor expert David Starkey described Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as a 'deliberate perversion of fact'. The novel, he said, is 'a wonderful, magnificent fiction'.

But if Oxford has taught me one thing, it's that all the best history is. Starkey is a Cambridge man, and maybe they do things differently there. But any perceptive Oxford undergraduate will soon realise that a little bit of fiction is the surest way to a First. What the admissions material opaquely describes as 'historical imagination' turns out to be an irregular verb: I imagine, you pervert the facts.

Any success I've had in my first year and a half at Magdalen College, I owe to the fact that I have no qualms about taking this approach. My highest-marked essays include ones which argue that Martin Luther was a fraud, that Second Wave American feminists were profoundly sexist and that King Alfred the Great was a historical irrelevance.

In another essay, I said that the Counter-Reformation was a success because the Catholics were so flexible, tolerant and easy-going -- I didn't mention the Inquisition once. Saying it was 'completely wrong, but a delight to read', my tutor gave it a First.

The same tutor recommended Fernand Braudel's seminal 1949 tome, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II , as the greatest history book of all time -- while adding, as a cheery side-note, that he was sure Braudel had made all the facts up.

The list of historians who've been led by their imaginations as much as their sources is distinguished. In the 1960s, John Prebble's reconstructions of the great disasters of Scottish history were blood-soaked bestsellers. His vivid narratives brought to life first the rainy, desolate moor that staged the Battle of Culloden, then the betrayal, disease and starvation of the Highland Clearances. Prebble was described by the current chair of history at Glasgow University as the man who 'had interested more people than anyone this century in Scottish history'. But he's still dismissed by most academics as a glorified historical novelist.

It was the contrarianism of the young Niall Ferguson was the inspiration for Irwin, the provocative history teacher in Alan Bennett's The History Boys . …

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