Guest Post by Catherine Batac Walder
The event with Dame Hilary Mantel and renowned historian and broadcaster, Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, at the Oxford Literary Festival on April 1 was probably one of the most enriching conversations I’ve heard in my nine years of attending the festival. The pair discussed their different perspectives on the sixteenth-century lawyer and statesman Thomas Cromwell. Mantel is working on volume III of her Cromwell trilogy. MacCulloch is writing an historical biography on Cromwell--he said he admires the man: “my book covers up to 1532 when he hasn’t killed anybody yet.” There is a huge archive on the controversial historical figure and to have these two experts give us a glimpse of their research and writing processes was like listening to a private chat that wasn’t short of a steady flow of ideas.
I specifically enjoyed their exchange about the challenges of going through Tudor correspondence wherein it wasn’t a practice for the authors of the letters to write the year so it could be confusing for scholars. Mantel talked about how she recently came across a letter that was written at midnight and that she could just sense the weariness of the writer. These documents are fascinating as they are a testimony to the circumstances and the urgency in which these letters were written (or in relation to the study of Cromwell, how leaders overworked their employees). An archive is obviously an in-tray, but MacCulloch noted that you would at least expect there was an out-tray kept as well, drafts of outgoing correspondence, but there was none. He surmised that in 1540, the household, warned of their master’s arrest, sat up all night burning the out-tray, as it was much less easy to be convicted on the contents of your in-tray than what you write to others (not that it had saved Cromwell’s life).
I applaud Mantel’s comments on her stance as an historical novelist, commenting on the practice of affixing a bibliography to a work of fiction: “[I]n my view [it] is a complete misdirection of the reader and misdirection of what research is. Research is not taking bits out of one text to put into another text ... You have legitimacy, you have the authority of the imagination.” She urged her contemporaries not to spend their lives apologizing, cringing because “you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are complementary but they are different.” I believe these comments may also apply to other authors who don’t want their works labeled (e.g., as scifi or fantasy, for fear of not being taken seriously) when dragons or witches give the game away.
There was a space of three years between Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both of which won Mantel the Booker Prize. It’s been five years since the last book, and her reading from the upcoming The Mirror and the Light, enthralled the audience and gave us our Cromwell fix, at least for the time being.
--Catherine Batac Walder is a freelance writer living in England. She blogs at The Gaslight House.
Images, above: Hilary Mantel signing books at the Oxford Literary Festival; below: the festival marquee outside the Sheldonian Theatre. Credit: Catherine Batac Walder