26 February 2015

Wolf Hall: The Inside Story ~ so unlike a historical novel?

I always recommend reading the book before seeing the TV adaptation, as it can be almost impossible to not recall the imagery once the BBC have put their stamp on it.  A possible exception to this is Hilary Mantel’s celebrated novel Wolf Hall. I must admit to struggling a little with the book, although all became clear when I watched the slow-paced but otherwise excellent TV series.

Last night the BBC rounded off the final episode with a fascinating interview with actor Mark Rylance about his performance as Thomas Cromwell.   Asked about historical accuracy, he said, ‘She [Mantel] made it seem so unlike a historical novel. That is maybe why people assume her work is so reckless or careless but she researched this for over five years, so you need to remember she did a lot of work, She didn’t just write a popular version of this story.’

This made me sit up and think. As a historical fiction novelist, I wonder if the best compliment I can look forward to is that my work is unlike a historical fiction novel?  What does that mean, I wonder? Perhaps it is really what writing mentor Emma Darwin describes in her thought provoking post: Psychic Distance: What It Is And How To Use It. Mark Rylance also said when he read Wolf Hall ‘it was almost as if you were in the room with them.’ 

As for the debate about Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, I applaud any re-telling that challenges the ‘popular view’ of history.  What we ‘know’ is so often derived on accounts written decades after the events and often rely on portraits of uncertain provenance.

Psychic or narrative distance is about where the reader is, relative to the character, so perhaps the challenge is to find ways to new and original ways to not only take readers back in time—but also take them inside the character's heads.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” ~ Anais Nin

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