Monday, 30 December 2013

The Hilary Mantel method

Hilary Mantel is one of my greatest inspirations. She is an extraordinarily versatile novelist who has written many contemporary novels as well as her Booker winners, including Beyond Black, the story of a medium which presents the spirit world in forensic detail. This is one of my Desert Island books. (My rationale being that if I were sent to a desert island, I would take eight books and one record.)

I have now read both Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and there is no doubt that Mantel deserved her double Booker. Not only does she create a plausible, tangible sixteenth century reality, and populate it with characters who are credible both as Early Modern humans and people we can understand, she raises the game for all writers of historical fiction. The question of what is factual and what is imaginary, what is invented for the benefit of modern readers and what is ‘authentic’ is one which we all need to address. We might not find an answer to it, but we can only write with fluency and authority if we know enough to imagine with confidence. And Mantel meets this challenge with magisterial brilliance. Speaking at the Novel Approaches to History conference at the Institute of Historical Research in November 2011, Mantel commented:

What happens in most historical fiction is – the author dresses up twenty-first century figures in the costume of the period. Conventional historical fiction – offers moral teaching about the lives of women. I did not want a cocked or disguised way of writing about the present. The past has a value in itself. Fact and fiction are not two neat categories. If I were to distinguish fact from fiction in Wolf Hall, I would have to footnote every line.
Mantel is interested in the aspects of the past that historians cannot access.  This is what she calls ‘the activated Power of Rumour’ and this is where an author’s imagination can operate, free of accusations of inaccuracy. 

She argues: ‘I can operate in this “off the record” area. So much of what we have now – pageantry, painting, gift giving culture – is what is demonstrated or shown. I am more interested in what is going on on the back stairs, what is said behind the hand. I might be able to make my readers feel what it was like to live through those terrifying days. I will walk you forward with the characters who don’t know the end of the road.’

Wolf Hall shows Thomas Cromwell’s vulnerability – his wife and daughters die suddenly of the sweating sickness. At the start of Bring up the Bodies, we learn that he has given his daughters’ names to his falcons. He sees them plummet from the sky to kill their prey. (The opening sentence is: ‘His children are falling from the sky.’ I would challenge anyone to stop reading after that.)  Cromwell trusts his instincts more readily than his fellow man. At Henry’s request, he schemes against Anne Boleyn without knowing what the outcome will be. (Henry, becoming toddler-like in his bulky infirmity, is trammeled by his own power.) Cromwell must act to end the marriage he worked so hard to broker. His is a ruthless but inexact science.

His view is partial, sometimes confused; his surroundings are shadowed and obfuscated.  He is Master Secretary – he can do anything in the service of the King, even arrange for the removal of inconvenient wives. But the removal of Anne is messy. Witnesses may be lying. The accused may have confessed because they were tortured. His own position is insecure, just as Anne’s is insecure, and her downfall may bring about his end. (If Anne Boleyn wasn’t safe from Cromwell, the courtier Wriothesley asks, how does the King know he can trust him?)

The reader is similarly unsure and half-informed, caught between light and darkness. I tried to describe Mantel’s style to someone recently, and talked about seeing her characters though mullions of dark coloured glass, vividly but incompletely. So I was pleased to find almost this same image towards the end of Bring up the Bodies: ‘Perhaps, caught in the little panes which distort and cloud, Wriothesley sees a dubious image: confusion, fear, emotions that do not often mark Master Secretary’s face…’

In the third volume of the trilogy, we will find out that things end badly for Cromwell. This is not a spoiler, as history has already done this job for me. The point is not what happens, but how. And in Mantel’s ‘off the record’ area, the ‘how’ can be imagined with truthful clarity.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Why I wrote about Shakespeare's Dark Lady

In my previous post about Dark Aemilia I talked about beginning life as a historical fiction writer, with no background as a historian. I should probably add that I chose the Early Modern period simply because I discovered the real Aemilia Bassano Lanyer when I was trying to find out more about the early staging of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Unlike my children, who appeared to study nothing but the Tudors when they were at school, I had never really studied this period. But I didn’t feel inspired by the French Revolution, or the Industrial one, perhaps for the very reason that I had studied these during a period of my life when I was catatonic with gloom. (Don’t get me started on puberty, nihilism and A levels.)

Lanyer’s story inspired me for the following reasons:

She was possibly Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, the cruel and insatiable lover to whom he dedicated sonnets 127 to 152.
  • She was an outsider, the member of a family of Jewish Venetian musicians. Her father and his five brothers came to the English court to play for Henry VIII.
  • She was the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain and was kept in a splendid suite of rooms at Whitehall Palace.
  • When she became pregnant she was married off to her cousin, a feckless recorder player who spent her dowry in a year.
  • She was herself a poet, one of the first women to be published professionally in England.

From rags to riches and then back again with music, poetry and Shakespeare attached – what was not to like? So no matter how much work was involved, I needed to write her story.

If you want to find out more about my research for this book and the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, then you can read my piece in the December/January/February issue of the women’s writing magazine Mslexia

(You can’t access the piece itself via this link, but you can find out more about the issue and how to subscribe.)

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Write what you know?

‘Write what you know’ – now there’s a sterling piece of advice. I’ve passed it on to quite a few students in my time. A little experience, an injection of actual pain, something that’s stirred the surface of your life – this is the stuff of good fiction, there is no doubt about it.

But writing what you know can mean sticking to the boring and familiar. Audacity and curiosity are also essential features of effective writing. Writing what you don’t know opens new worlds of possibility – you can write about anything you like if you take the trouble to find out about it.  And these two elements: of knowing and not knowing can work together. Experience combined with empathy can take the writer – and the reader – to the most exotic or remote places and to forgotten worlds. 

None of this is easy, though. When I started writing novels I thought I would be writing books drawing on social observation and the world around me. So I wrote two novels based on my take on contemporary life, featuring the war between the sexes, modern hypocrisy, etc, and thought this was my territory. But the books didn't sell enough for my publisher's liking, I was out in the cold once more, and I therefore decided to Go Historical.  I grew up reading Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece and Ian Serraillier, and loved the sense they gave of entering a time machine and flying back into history, tactile, sensory, vivid, convincing. I was sure I’d enjoy immersing myself in the past. The only problem was that I didn’t know very much about this place: The Past. Any of it. My knowledge of history was based on the Ladybird books, a selection of melodramatic 1970s movies including Anne of a Thousand Days, Nicholas and Alexandra and A Man for all Seasons and my O and A levels. My O-level focused on the Industrial Revolution and the social legislation which followed. 

There was also some Napoleonic business thrown in. I did well at this: I liked and believed in the idea of social progress. (It was the 1970s.)  My A level was a disaster. I became mired in the detail of the French Revolution, and the blood and horror got lost in dates and times of day and the minutiae of shifting alliances. The American War of Independence was just boring generals and pointless battles. My teacher, Mrs Cheer, used to steeple her fingers in what I considered a complacent manner while talking about The Battle of Ticonderoga, and I would stare dumbly at her, steeped in a horrible teenage knowledge of my own mortality.  (I just Googled this battle and there are four different possible options: this can’t have helped.)


So when I began a novel about William Shakespeare and Aemilia Bassano – the novel which became Dark Aemilia – I had to do One Hell of A Lot of Groundwork. Mrs Cheer would probably be proud of me, if not a little surprised. (I got a C for History instead of my predicted A. It still rankles.) And I now really do know quite a lot about Early Modern England, though not quite as much as I did when in the throes of writing the novel.

This was meant to be a post about the genius of Hilary Mantel! Watch this space...