What is historical fiction?

As the name suggests, it’s a fictionalised version of history. But, as Booker-winning British author Hilary Mantel’s famous trilogy shows, such novels have the power to ignite reader interest in history

“Award-winning British author Hilary Mantel dies at 70” announced media all over the world in September. Not all writers are fortunate enough to get such a global coverage but as she had the distinction of being the first woman writer to win the Booker Prize twice and popularise the genre of historical fiction, she was accorded such a high recognition. To honour her and to familiarise us with her work, our English teacher organised a presentation in the morning assembly. It is a practice in our school to focus on such significant moments.

An alumnus of our school, currently studying Engineering, was invited to talk to us as he was known to have read her writings widely. What follows is some ideas from his presentation.

He started off by saying that though there were several kinds of fiction such as adventure novels, horror novels, utopian novels, and sci-fi, he was always fascinated by historical novels for two reasons: “One, they narrate stories based on a historical figure, and second, readers can acquaint themselves with many facets of life of that period.”

Having underscored the benefits of reading historical fiction, he moved on to inform us that Mantel was a prolific writer-published 12 novels, two collections of short stories, and a huge number of articles and essays, but it was the trilogy centered around Thomas Cromwell that brought her fame. She chose to fictionalise the life of Cromwell, a fascinating historical figure of the 16th Century, who was chief minister to King Henry VIII but ordered by the same king to be beheaded on the charges of treason. He, thus, tasted the glory of power, and on the other hand, suffered the humiliation meant for a criminal. She chose to present such an intriguing character interestingly.

Cromwell was the case of ‘rags to riches’, he pointed out. Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith but worked his way to become the most trusted advisor to the king. It happened at a time when such happening was considered inconceivable as what mattered most was the =family fame to be in the royal court. The writer, obviously, identified a character, which would arouse the curiosity of any reader and to trace his unlikely rise and fall.

Wolf Hall (2009), the first of the trilogy, portrayed Cromwell’s rise from his ‘low’ parentage to becoming the wealthiest and the most influential person in King Henry VIII’s court. By contriving to annul King’s first marriage with Katherine, and enabling him to marry Anne Boleyn, he earned the king’s trust. Later, he managed to bring in a legislation, despite the opposition, to ensure the succession of Anne’s children to the throne.

The second of the trilogy. Bring up the Bodies (2012) was a continuation of the first. As the king found Anne, his second wife, argumentative and irksome, he decided to separate and marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell schemed his way to get Anne arrested on the charges of cheating on the king, and he encircled a few others who stood in his way and got them executed along with her. Thus, he was delineated as an ambitious, unscrupulous, and corrupt politician who was bent upon achieving what he desired at any cost.

The alumnus told us that he was yet to read the last one, The Mirror and the Light published in 2020. But from the reviews he got to know that it was about the last four years of Cromwell’s life, and was curious to read it.

Commenting on the writer’s style, he highlighted that although she was dealing with the past, she preferred to employ the present tense to create a sense of contemporaneity to her readers. And her frequent use of dialogues gave an image of observing the characters talking to each other alive. He concluded stating, “After reading the first novel, I felt an urge to know about the Tudor history. So historical novels could ignite reader interest in history but it’s not a must to understand them.” He suggested that we must read her trilogy to appreciate historical novels.

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