Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Reith Lectures/ Museum of Lost Objects

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Reith Lectures/ Museum of Lost Objects

Article excerpt

'History is not the past,' says the writer Hilary Mantel in the first of her Reith Lectures on Radio 4 (produced by Jim Frank, Tuesday). 'It's the method we've evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.' In Resurrection: The Art and Craft, her series of five talks, Mantel shows her mettle as a novelist (most notably of the award-winning Wolf Hall and its sequel) and as a historian, too, arguing the case for historical fiction, once much-maligned as a literary genre precisely because it twists the facts to create a narrative, usually of a highly romanticised flavour. But facts are not truths, Mantel asserts provocatively. 'The moment we are deceased we become the subject of stories. The process of fictionalisation is instant and natural and inevitable.' Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, interpretation begins.

But to begin with she didn't like making things up. She looked for evidence, spent ages reading up on the facts only to realise, as she was researching a book set in revolutionary France, that there are so many gaps in the record. It was these 'erasures and silences' that turned her into a novelist. How to fill them? She determined that although she 'would make up a man's inner torments' she would never invent the colour of his drawing-room wallpaper. That detail she needed to know so that she could 'look around the room through his eyes'. (A 'snide' critic complained of the book that followed that there was 'a lot of wallpaper in it'.)

Aged 12, on a visit to Hampton Court Palace, Mantel remembers bursting into tears as she sat on the floor in Cardinal Wolsey's closet. It was as if in some way she knew then how her life would be mapped out. 'I have in fantasy,' she says, 'fulfilled what I imagined that day. I have seen Cardinal Wolsey sitting by the fireplace and I have lain my elbow on the windowsill and I have conversed with him.' It's this ability to enter into the past, Mantel's uncanny intuition, that makes her novels set in the court of Henry VIII and focused on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, engineer of the English Reformation, so compelling. They feel so authentic, so remarkably true to what it must have been like to be there in that closet with Wolsey. Like a psychic, a Mystic Meg, Mantel delves back into the lives of the dead and resurrects them as if they could be alive and with us now.

Her intention, she says, is 'to introduce a wobble into the fabric of reality', to make us less certain about how things were. …

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