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Why Not Just Admit It's Fiction?

03/02/2015 17:07 GMT | Updated 05/04/2015 10:59 BST

When I interviewed Hilary Mantel in 2011 while she was still writing Bring Up the Bodies, she described her characters as belonging to "a chain of literary representation." Her Cromwell, she told me, "shakes hands" with previous depictions, as does her Thomas More, a bold departure from earlier depictions such as the sanctified, witty dropout of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons:

"[W] hat I was really up against [in Wolf Hall] was A Man for All Seasons: the older fiction having accreted authority, just by being around for two generations. When I say to people, 'Do you really think More was a 1960s liberal?' they laugh. 'Of course not.' "

But Mantel understood that her More, like her Cromwell and her Anne, reflects cultural projections and agendas no less than Bolt's. "All historical fiction is really contemporary fiction," she told me, "We always write from our own time." She was reluctant to criticize other authors for their "choices." "I never knowingly distort facts," she told me. But history is full of factual chasms and moral ambiguities, and "I might this very day be generating some vast error."

"I make sure I never believe my own story" she said.

All that seems to have changed now that her books have been made into a play and television series, widely praised by the press and touted by Mantel herself for its historical accuracy. Keeping careful watch over The BBC's adaptation so as to avoid what she has called the "cascade of errors" and the "nonsense" of historical dramas such as The Tudors, in recent interviews Mantel has declared the series a success. "History is never a convenient shape, it's true, but if you have the craft and the will to do it, you can find a way to tell a good story without distortion." She is delighted "that accuracy remained a priority" in the series. Commentators have overwhelmingly agreed, from the not-always-scrupulous Daily Mail ("Accuracy is king in the most eagerly anticipated TV event of the year...You won't find a zip, or Velcro, even in the crowd") to historian Lucy Worsley (who finds "no flaws" beyond the fact that "Jane Seymour is too pretty.") A notable dissenter is David Starkey, who as usual undermines his own critique by lathering it with bile, calling Mantel's version of characters and events a "deliberate perversion" of historical fact.

Virtually alone in his calm candor about the inventiveness of Mantel's universe, the show's director Peter Kosminsky is both more modest in his claims for accuracy than Mantel, but unlike Starkey does not find anything "perverse" about its license with fact: "Wolf Hall is revisionist history, there's no doubt about it. There are people who take strong exception to her interpretations, particularly of Sir Thomas More. Is this the truth? I have no idea. We set out to shoot Peter's script. This is our attempt to bring Hilary's books to the screen, no more or less."

Thank you, Mr. Kosminsky. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are indeed revisionist "history," and not just in the depiction of More. Operating (although not consistently) with the literary device of how people and events "might have looked from Thomas Cromwell's point of view," Mantel gives us portraits of people and events that are often factually unsupported and sometimes downright contradicted, and so far the series is following her lead. Its portrait of Anne Boleyn, for example, is a rather tired old stereotype of Anne as a coldly ambitious, narcissistic schemer that seems to be written more from the point of view of Anne's political enemy Eustace Chapuys than Cromwell. In the novel, Mantel sustains that "mean girl" stereotype by excluding some key historical events that the real Cromwell, whatever his feelings about Anne, would have witnessed or known about - Anne's eloquent speech at her trial, for example, and the one at the scaffold. In her author's note, Mantel "justifies" the omission of the speeches, citing skepticism that they actually occurred. But this is odd, not only because there are multiple corroborating reports of both, but also because Mantel had a few sentences before told her readers that she claims no historical "authority" for her version of things. (It seems she is no longer skeptical about the scaffold speech, as it has apparently been included in the television series.)

Only two episodes have been broadcast so far, so we will have to see whether the series follows the novels in omitting other key incidents that don't buttress Mantel's view of Cromwell. It's a matter of historical record, for example, that Anne's longtime ally Thomas Cranmer, shocked by Anne's arrests, sat down to write a letter to Henry expressing his amazement at the charges against her. His writing was interrupted however (as Cranmer relates when he resumes), by a visit from Cromwell and his cronies. They apparently helped him to "change his mind" about Anne's guilt, for the letter ends very differently than it begins, with poor Cranmer, clearly quaking in his boots, acknowledging that she must be guilty. Mantel chooses, in Bring up the Bodies, not to tell us about the interruption. Perhaps the detail would have made Cromwell seem more like a thug than she wished to portray him.

All this, of course, is Mantel's prerogative as a novelist. Why then not admit that it's that prerogative rather than concerns about historical accuracy that account for her exclusion of Anne's speeches as well? Why not admit, in other words, that the world she has created, while situated in history and peopled with characters that had an historical existence, is fiction. What on earth is wrong with that? Why all the PR about the historical "rigor," "accuracy," many years of research, etc. that went into the novels?

Fiction can put us in touch with truths that no history text can attain, and should be proud of its ability to do just that. Mantel's novels brilliantly capture the cozy but claustrophobic world of Henry's court and the tightrope nature of survival within it. And her Cromwell is a compelling personification of the kind of man who could prosper in that season. Mark Rylance's performance in the BBC series is both still and magnetic, and I would watch the show for it alone. But let's not suppose that just because the clothes have no zippers and the gardens are not manicured that Mantel's Cromwell (or Anne, or More, or Wolsey) are more "historically accurate" than A Man for All Seasons or The Tudors.

Susan Bordo is the author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn, now available both in the US and in the UK in paperback.