Sunday, 20 November 2011

We are the resurrectionists!

Last week’s conference at the Institute of Historical Research explored the links between academic history and historical fiction, in the light of the fact that a significant number of people who have written academic history have gone on to turn their minds to fiction (Alison Weir, Ian Mortimer and Rebecca Stott, who were present at the conference; Harry Sidebottom and Hallie Rubenhold, who were not).

As someone embarked on this path (though starting out as an archaeologist rather than a historian), this held a natural fascination for me. Rebecca Stott (who I hadn’t met, but whose path must have crossed mine on many occasions when she was researching Charles Darwin and I was researching his friend and neighbour, John Lubbock) spoke of the historian “coming to the end of the archive, the limits of what is footnote-able.” This is what led her to write her fascinating novels, Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief (, and it is what has led me to my interest in writing fiction. Certainly in relation to the Neolithic of the Channel Islands (on which I have published one coffee-table book, three academic monographs and 29 journal articles) I felt that I had reached that point, the point at which, in Stott’s words, “you know something to be true, but cannot prove it.”

So what is missing? In a word, people. Real people who had names and emotions, and faced moral dilemmas. Archaeology can’t give you that, yet these are the people who built the monuments and made the pots and the stone tools that I have spent three decades studying. The search for these people, the desire to conjure them out of the past, is not new: the American archaeologist, Robert Braidwood, was engaged in a search to find “the Indian behind the artefact” long before I was born, but it is perhaps only in fiction that this desire can be fully realised. As Hilary Mantel said on Friday evening, our vocation is as “resurrectionists”!   

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Hilary Mantel on History and Fiction

To my mind, Hilary Mantel is one of the finest living writers of historical fiction, combining an exhilarating sense of immediacy with a remarkable fidelity to the reality of history. I have just had the pleasure of hearing her speak on her published novels, A Place of Greater Safety (set during the French Revolution) and Wolf Hall (set in the court of Henry VIII), and its forthcoming sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. She described “the alchemical process through which fact metamorphoses into fiction.”

“I will make up the content of a man’s heart,” she told us, “but I will not make up the colour of his drawing room wall – I would rather move the discussion to his study, where I do know the colour of the wall.”

She went on to talk about the ways in which the novelist, unlike the historian, can explore those conversations that happened “on the back stair,” the conversations which, for very good reasons, were never recorded. Historical novelists, she insisted, are “allowed to be partial.” Wolf Hall is narrated from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, and the picture it paints, for example, of Thomas More, is not intended to be an objective depiction of the historical figure, but rather an imaginative reconstruction of the way he might have seemed to Cromwell. This, I think, takes us a little further than Marguerite Yourcenar’s attempt to develop a historical voice. It certainly inspired me.

This is part of a conference at the Institute of Historical Research, which continues tomorrow (and I will doubtless have more to say about it). The conference is fully booked, but has a virtual component, accessible at It would be great if you could join me there!