History – maybe it’s all just smoke and mirrors

I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’ and loving it. Or should it be called ‘The Smoke and the Mirrors’? I become increasingly conscious that history is not all it at first appears to be. Indeed, some of it may not even be real.

light on derwent water

If ever you thought you could perhaps pen a novel, reading Hilary Mantel will convince you that you probably can’t. She writes so beautifully. She makes the most intimate detail sparkle whilst never losing track of the complex interwoven tapestry of plot. Sometimes her descriptions stop you on the page and you have to just sit, breathless, and soak up their beauty and richness. That is a rare talent.

Immersed in the meticulously researched history she describes, of conversations and glances, of personal reflections and dark thoughts, I find myself irritated by the introduction of what she admits are invented characters – an intrusive servant perhaps or an illegitimate daughter. Why, I wonder, spoil the factual portrayal of important moments in history by ‘making up’ extraneous characters?

So compelling is the rest of her writing that it takes time for me to realise my folly.

Did I bring the milk in?

This is fiction. Those historic conversations and angst-ridden musings by which I am so convinced – they are made up too. The characters may be real. But those private moments of confession or intimacy? She can’t know they happened. She can only surmise motive on the part of the king, or imagine the anxieties of the brilliantly portrayed Cremuel. Those musings that Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn, Norfolk or Cramner reveal in the pages of her books were never actually thought. They are in her imagination, not in ‘real’ history at all.

You don’t have to be a Mantel reader to spot it. You are surrounded by examples elsewhere. David Olusoga does it all the time in his excellent TV series ‘A House Through Time’. When he doesn’t have evidence for something, he simply makes it up. “Looking down the bleak hallway of 121 Grove Street, poor Annie Orphan must have thought, ‘What does my life hold?’” And we happily go along with it.

But really? Must she? How does David know? She might have been thinking, “I wonder what historians will make of this house in 100 years’ time” or “Did I bring the milk in?”.

Perhaps we are no better

Don’t get me started on  Netflix’s ‘The Crown’.

But now that I understand what’s going on, I can happily forgive Hilary Mantel her invented characters just as easily as I embrace her invented encounters and those illuminating, imagined conversations between real characters. It all adds wonderfully to the richness of the picture and it engages us, utterly.

And I wonder too, as we think back over our own histories, how much of what we remember is imagined. Or how much of what we attribute as motive or hidden thought in others is actually just driven by our desire to support the narrative we choose to create.

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