You don’t need much in the way of wits to see through the phenomenon Hilary Mantel.
Her biographical novel Wolf Hall is a book only literal-minded and forensic. Its author tells us that every smallest movement of the plot was first checked against what could be discovered as the most accurate historical account. The result is not a novel but artifice, the literary equivalent of painting-by-numbers – a technique which surely pre-empted any reluctance on the part of the literal-minded judges to award Mantel the Man-Booker Prize. Mantel regards Cromwell, the plunderer of the monasteries, as a principled man and an idealist – but then her original idea of what constitutes a man of principle must be set beside her description to Sir Thomas More as “a fanatic.”
And now here comes the Great Dame again to give us the Reith Lectures on the relationship between history and fiction. She does not betray the reputation for fatuity which she first revealed in Wolf Hall. In fact she exceeds it, particularly when she begins with an astonishing remark concerning historical persons: “We can know what they did but not what they thought.”
If this were the case, we could know what Nelson had for breakfast on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar but we could never know that his battle tactics were dictated by his earlier thought: “I will sail my fleet in a straight course directly through the middle of the enemy’s lines of ships.”
But that thought is precisely what we do know. We can infer Nelson’s thoughts from his deeds. What we may be conflicted about is whether he had one egg that day or two.
Or again: we know what the Roman commanders were thinking before they sailed to invade us. They were thinking, “We can succeed in this operation.” Or they wouldn’t have come!
Nearer home, we can know that Dame Hilary Mantel gave the Reith Lectures because we have recordings of her giving them. We can also know that, some time before the lectures began, she thought, “I will agree to give this series of lectures.” And if we ourselves, give the matter more attention, we can come to know in more detail her train of thoughts as she was making up her mind to give the lectures, what she would entitle them and what she would say; and even why she would say what she did say.
We can learn the meaning of historical study from R.G. Collingwood who wrote: “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.”
There is a widespread and foolish notion that what we call history is the past in, as it were, a long stream of events going right back to earliest beginnings. This is delusional thinking for there is no such past. It exists only in the minds of present day historians as they think about the past.
Dame Hilary takes the forensic view of the past and forms of it a kind of museum culture. This too is delusional.
Collingwood again: “Nothing capable of being learnt by heart, nothing capable of being memorised, is history.”
Rather, history is our present thoughts about the doings of our predecessors.