How faithful do you need to be?

The Booker winner and a GG nominee take very different approaches to historical fiction

How faithful do you need to be?The English and those who trace their lineage, or at least their language, to Shakespeare’s sceptred isle, have always loved the Tudor era. It’s short and tidy (just three generations of rulers), full of sex and blood (Henry VIII and all those wives), exciting moments of glory (Francis Drake) and high art (Shakespeare). Hundreds of popular novels—not to mention hit TV series—have been set in the period, many of them, author Hilary Mantel waspishly notes, excuses to write about “sex and violence and the war between men and women—a lot of cheap romantic fiction.” All that goes a long way to explaining why Wolf Hall, Mantel’s massive novel of Thomas Cromwell, the royal official who masterminded Henry VIII’s first divorce and break with Rome, was always the favourite to take the Booker prize—bookies set their odds by bettors’ wagers, not by their literary opinions. It does not, however, explain why the novel actually won the Booker.

The vexing question of genre fiction—mystery, horror, romance, science fiction, fantasy and historical, to name the most prominent—doesn’t so much divide readers, critics and prize juries as confuse them. The barriers between genres are porous—romance-mysteries are common—and the line between the genres and literary fiction, which is what is supposed to be celebrated by the prestigious prizes, is in the eye of the beholder. Perceptions can turn on a writer’s reputation. Someone who made her name in historical fiction wouldn’t stand a chance, however good her work, of a Booker nomination. Mantel, though, is a well-regarded author whose seven previous novels have settings as diverse as present-day Saudi Arabia and Paris during the Terror. In short, a literary writer who sometimes mines the past. It helps even more to be Margaret Atwood. Her Oryx and Crake is beautifully written, scathingly intelligent—and pure science fiction. But that didn’t stop the Giller jury from shortlisting it in 2003.

Most genre work probably requires an author of Atwood-level stature to reach a prize list, but historical fiction is granted more latitude. Macbeth is never thought of as a period piece about an 11th-century Scottish king. And not just because Shakespeare’s name is attached to it. Almost all literary authors mine the past at some point. (Oryx and Crake lost the Giller, but Atwood won that award seven years earlier with Alias Grace, set in mid-19th-century Canada—history trumps SF.) Critics then turn to what they think was the writer’s aim: is the emphasis literary—on language and style, psychological acuity, character—or on illuminating a historical era with a rollicking good story? At times literary writers are trying, in a fashion that mystifies historians (but delights critics), to create a “truth” that the often scanty historical record cannot support.

Kate Pullinger had something like that in mind when she wrote The Mistress of Nothing, one of the nominees for the Governor General’s Award that will be handed out Nov. 17. The novel tells the (fictional) story of Sally Naldrett, the little-known maid of the very well-known Victorian traveller and writer, Lady Duff Gordon. The lady does not come off well in the way she treats the maid, something that annoyed the lady’s great-great grandson, Antony Beevor, a prominent author of military history. He penned a newspaper column on the dangers of mingling fact and fiction, citing a survey showing, in the wake of The Da Vinci Code film, that half of Britons believe the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene still walk among us. Pullinger’s response, in a blog entry headed “Historical fiction has rules? PAH!”, was unrepentant: “Surely it is the role of all novelists to uncover the untold stories, the undocumented lives; surely this is a legitimate way to demonstrate and elucidate ‘historical truth’ (a concept that is itself notoriously unreliable).”

Mantel deservedly won her Booker by obliterating all those fault lines. A more careful historian than Pullinger, she refused to play games with the record, once saying, “I stick with the facts until the facts run out. I don’t try to improve on them.” She writes in a pitch-perfect idiom, modern English with a slight archaic overlay, in a beautifully paced  historical present tense. She makes readers see familiar events (classic historical fiction) in a new light, through the filter of Cromwell’s complex inner life (the modern literary theme). The result is something new: fiction historical enough for Tudor fans not to notice the literary flourishes, and literary enough for a Booker jury to ignore the history.

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