Something I learned from Hilary Mantel – how to fix the single biggest challenge that any writer of historical fiction ever faces, anytime, anywhere.
Let me explain – if you’re writing about any time earlier than, let us say, the French revolution, certainly if you’re brave enough to make the imaginative leap into the early modern world, the medieval world or even – pray for me – antiquity then you have, and sooner not later, to confront the fundamental problem when creating credible worlds and characters – how to deal with religion, and religious experience. Bluntly, the vast majority of your potential readers – whether educated or not, irrespective of class – have grown up in a society where religion is at best a marginal, possibly weirdly aberrant interest or activity. Many may be actively hostile to the idea of any religion at all. So the problem you face as a writer is how to (i) create convincing characters for whom religious belief is an important and sympathetic part of their consciousness, and (ii) depict societies where culture, language, education and social relations all have religion as a central part of their construction.
And Mantel solved this seemingly impossible conundrum in a single scene of breath-taking brilliance early on in ‘Wolf Hall’.
Not long after his wife and children all fall ill and die of ‘the sweating sickness’ in the course of a single day, Thomas Cromwell goes to a church on All Souls Day, the traditional autumn festival of dead souls that in the 21st Century is almost completely elided from our awareness by Hallowe'en and the national cult of remembrance of the war dead. In brief, in the course of worship, Thomas remembers and mourns his dead, and is comforted: he walks out of the church psychologically healed in so far as he is able to tolerate his grief and live a bearable life.
And this is done with the brilliance of prose, precision of expression, acuity of psychological insight and authenticity of emotion and intellect that Mantel’s fiction achieves with such astonishing effortlessness. As a reader, you are impressed by the human weakness of Thomas Cromwell, and at the same time you now understand why religion and its communal expression was so important to people that they were prepared to instigate bloody revolution and to kill and die for it.
For this one scene, I and all contemporary writers of historical fiction owe her a debt that is now unrepayable.