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Historical Fiction wins Man Booker Prize in Literature – Neil Wynn

of the  Man Booker Prize to Hilary Mantel, her second in a row, for Bring Up the Bodies,  the sequel to her previous winner, Wolf Hall, has placed historical fiction firmly in the public eye.  Sir Peter Stothard, chair of the panel of judges, said “she has rewritten the book on writing historical fiction” and some observers commented that history writing would not be the same again.  Mantel’s two novels, part of a trilogy, chart the career of Thomas Cromwell; Bring Up the Bodies  focuses on the Anne Boleyn and ends with her execution.  Thoroughly researched, there is no doubt that Mantel’s novels  offer some insight into the court and times of Henry VIII.  But  these novels do raise the issue of the line between fiction and history.  Clearly the subject, compared to a story about the Mafia by Sir Stothard and referred to as “our national soap opera” by Mantel herself, lends itself to dramatic writing –  but could the lives of ordinary people be handled in the same way?  Are we fixated too much  with the Tudor kings and queens?  Perhaps our early modernists have a view on this – and on the books themselves?  In the meantime, good to see history this popular – even if in the guise of a novel!



Iain Robertson says:

An interesting alternative perspective on the same period to the Mantel approach can be found in the ‘whodunits’ of C.J. Sansom. In these Sansom, who has a Ph.D from Birmingham, creates a fictional early modern investigator who takes on ‘special’ cases often given to him by members of the Royal Court of Henry VIII. So yes, there are aspects of a ‘top down’ elitist approach being taken here and yes, the rise and fall of Cromwell is covered by Sansom. But here he also departs a little from mantel, partly because he is writing in a more populist genre (not that Mantel isn’t ‘popular’) but also because he is seemingly very interested in ordinary, everyday experiences (and comes across as a bit of a lefty! – see his authors notes for Dissolution). Thus, in his most recent work, Heartstone, Sansom’s investigator, Matthew Shardlake, travels through The Weald on his way to the south coast. On his way he encounters iron workers working and Sansom describes (very accurately) the two differing types of iron foundry then in existence and the socio-economic and environmental consequences of the change from bloomery to blast furnace production.

So this leaves me with a question and the means to promote a new L5 module! Firstly, the question. Was I more drawn to Sansom rather than mantel because I intuitively sensed here was someone writing ‘from below’ whose approach I welcomed or because I was looking for an easy-going summer holiday read??

And finally, the promotion! Interested in historical fiction? Then HM5405 is the module for you!!!! Here’s a brief extract from the blurb: The historical novel, film or television series are all hugely popular genres. As such they give rise to crucial questions about key concepts such as fact and fiction, identity, the role of the past in the present; questions such as: what falsehoods enter our collective memory as truths; how is one to know what is real and what is imagined — or ignored — by producers, directors, or writers? This module will introduce students to these and to the many other different ways the past is put to use in the present.

Christian says:

I often found it quite amusing how some historians react with revulsion to popular historical dramatizations. I once had a debate, although I was playing devil’s advocate with an Oxford history student who hated the Showtime series The Tudors. While I could appreciate his argument for the blatant bending or misrepresentation of historical facts, I do see some general worth to these kinds of programmes, particularly if done well. I thought The Tudors series was quite convincing aesthetically in terms of setting and costumes, even the acting. Although Jonathan Rhys Meyers didn’t get fat, he was quite believable. But most importantly, the manner in which the series presented the events such as the Reformation, the crown’s relationship with the Vatican, Henry VIII’s relationship with his many wives, are informative to the general public despite their inaccuracies. I am yet to read Hilary Mantel’s books, but I am sure they are more informative the TV series. And even if the reader does get attached to Mantel’s representations of the characters, do not all historians do this at some level with the people they study?

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