I’ll be starting an MA Historical Fiction module on the 1st of February. I have a joint BA in History so I’ve always been fascinated by the past. Reading historical fiction offers a perfect fusion of history and literature for me.
I’d always dabbled in the genre and enjoyed fast-paced bestsellers from authors such as Philippa Gregory. The Other Boleyn Girl was a complete revelation to me, as, like most people, I had gotten a bit sick of the over-representation of Anne Boleyn in anything Tudor, along with either another character assassination or attempt at resurrection. Anne Boleyn is such a polemic historical figure that portrayals of her are never anything but extreme. She’s either the harlot or misunderstood heroine, the witch or Protestant reformer. Gregory’s focus on her long-forgotten sister was a master stroke. And she had Henry VIII’s son (possibly even two sons). Why didn’t anyone know this?
I feel extremely naughty and ignorant for saying this, but I’d honestly never even heard of Hilary Mantel before I saw the required reading for the module in December. This turned out to be a huge gap in my knowledge which was easily remedied. I’ve now read both the first and second books in her Wolf Hall trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. In the Waterstones sale, I’ve just treated myself to the third, The Mirror and the Light, as well as Gregory’s newest book, Dark Waters. I usually never order anything from Waterstones on account of it being so bloody RRP-priced, but I also had a voucher for being only one of two students who showed up to my University school’s Christmas Zoom quiz. Once again, I reaped the rewards of being an insufferable teacher’s pet. When they arrived last week, I breathed in the new book smell rapturously, and I’m looking forward to finally starting them after getting through my current brick of historical fiction, Charlotte Lynne’s Die Zwölfte Nacht. Honestly, historical fiction tends to come in cinderblock-style bricks rather than books. Genre conventions dictate they must be between 500 and 1000 pages long.
Mantels books are masterpieces, and I can’t stress that enough. They are masterpieces. The reason why I didn’t bother writing individual reviews for them was because I’m fairly sure most of Britain knows this already. She’s won the Booker Prize twice, and might just win it a third time with her final addition to the trilogy, which was released just last year. I’m just really late to the party. I was in such a Mantel-fuelled fangirl haze I even watched her documentary, Return to Wolf Hall, on BBC iPlayer. If anything, her working-class background, fractured childhood and odd mannerisms had me fangirling even harder.
Her focus on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s pig-faced shadow, was a stroke of genius, and her detailing of court intrigue through the eyes of a blacksmith’s son couldn’t have been more insightful. There are so many disparate threads to the story, and such a wealth of characters it certainly has a Game of Thrones feel to it, yet perhaps even more difficult because every character and event is the result of painstaking research as well as boundless imagination. Cromwell is constantly being underestimated, and you don’t particularly like the character- Mantel is far too clever an author to make her protagonist completely morally good, but you’re also rooting for him through all his machinations. The claustrophobic atmosphere of an increasingly volatile King and the knife-edge of the English Reformation only increases as the net slowly tightens around Cromwell, culminating in his fatal error: fixing the declining and capricious Henry up with the (apparently) repugnant Anne of Cleves.
Reading historical fiction in German is another step up the tricky scale. I may be fluent, but until I read my first German historical brick a few years ago, I realised I had no idea what the words for chamber, codpiece, tunic, shilling, jousting, executioner etc. were. Obviously. So It’s been a learning curve. Finding Tudor fiction originally written in German was a huge bonus, as they tend to translate so much out of English. They translate so much from so many languages that if you pick a random book up in a random bookstore in Germany, there’s almost a 50/50 chance it was originally written in some other language. Now, obviously I also enjoy reading translated fiction too, and I often read books translated into German from either English or another language entirely, but I can’t exactly choose translated fiction to translate into English during my modules. No, I need original German fiction for that. So, who knows, I may end up translating some Charlotte Lynne for my Process and Product module this term.
I’m really enjoying Die Zwölfte Nacht (Twelfth Night) at the moment, and I love its focus on the changing seasons. Its 650 pages are split into twelve huge chapters (another genre convention of historical fiction – absolutely whoppingly huge chapters. What’s that all about?), each chapter ending on our around the 6th of January, which is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night, or Epiphany if you’re Orthodox. We’ve kind of lost the tradition of celebrating Christmas over twelve days, and many people often forget that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were just the start of the festivities, culminating in a night of debauchery and social turn-tabling on the 6th January. However, its focus on the Seymours and Wolf Hall also feels very Mantel. It came out at around the same time, so I’m thinking Lynne may have taken more than a little bit of inspiration from her English counterpart.
I’ve never actually written any historical fiction myself, but I’ll have to this term, so watch this space.