Hilary Mantel and David Loades in discussion


Speakers: Hilary Mantel and David Loades

The Novel Approaches conference lectures begins with a conversation between famed historical novelist Hilary Mantel, author of the recent Booker prize novel Wolf Hall and Professor David Loades Emeritus Professor from the University of Wales.  The session is introduced by Paul Lay editor of History Today.


Introduction by Paul Lay (History Today)

David Loades

Hilary Mantel

Conversation between Hilary Mantel, David Loades, and Paul Lay

Please see the Podcasts feed for audio files

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About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.

8 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel and David Loades in discussion

  1. This conversation between an historian and a historical novelist provides the perfect opening for a conference on the topic of the relationship between the two forms of writing about the past. Hilary Mantel describes her novel, Wolf Hall, as a historiographical novel rather than an historical novel. The distinction is possibly important as a means to distinguish between types of historical novel ranging from the largely fantastical plot and made up circumstance to the complex interweaving of ‘true’ history with invention only there to fill in the gaps left by historical evidence. The discussion between David Loades and Hilary Mantel makes it clear that both the historian and the novelist (as far as this panel is concerned) recognise that within both forms of writing about the past there is a great variety of types and forms (Whig historian, Marxist, popular, feminist etc.).

    The essential question discussed here; however seems to be about authenticity. How ‘authentic’ should an historical novel be? Is a historical novel better because it is more authentic? Does that make it a good read? Both speakers seem to agree that all forms of writing about the past should be as authentic as possible – I’m not sure I entirely agree. Academic history should, of course, be as authentic as possible; but should the same rules apply to fictional representations as well?

    • Why write historical fiction if you’re not going to strive for authenticity? What’s the point of calling it historical fiction if you are going to digress or not do your research?
      I believe that historical fiction should have the integrity of sound research at its core. The more the author has researched – and this doesn’t need to go into the novel as information dump or anything like that – the more they will understand the life and times about which they are writing and the more the reader will benefit. It’s about integrity. If you are a good enough researcher and author you will weave history and story together in a seamless ribbon. No historian or author can ever get everything right, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying. Historical fiction is the way that many readers pick up on their history. You can say until you are blue in the face ‘Don’t take your facts from fiction’ but I am afraid many readers do. What’s the benefit of not doing the research?

    • In my view it does unless the author specifically states that it is runs counter to authenticity. Most people these days, whether one likes it or not, gain an understanding of history through historical fiction whether in literature, tv or film dramatisation. Unless there is a clear disclaimer, revisionism purveyed as quasi fact is legitimised.

      • I take the point about the educative importance of historical fiction. However, should that always be the case that a historical novel is authentic? Much historical fiction (more through tv and film admittedly) does run counter to authenticity at least to the historical facts and chronology. Is it sometimes enough to provide a sense of that period rather than a true account? I guess I’m wondering if there are levels or types of historical fiction ranging from the largely fantasy based to the near true history?

  2. I think historical fiction should have integrity. There are different levels that will reflect how much history is required. In say, a category romance the reader will not need every detail spelling out, and the historical input may be very light – readers will generally be looking for story rather than history, but even so, the details that go into the novel should be well researched. Providing your storytelling skills are up to scratch, the readers who only want the story will be happy with what you’ve accomplished, and those who want to feel the historical richness will not be disappointed or pulled out of the story by a sudden gaff. So it’s a win-win situation. If you are basing on fantasy, then of course you invent to suit your imagination, but you need to build that fantasy world, and you’ve got to get your building blocks from somewhere. If you are using a historical background, then you, the author need to know that setting intimately before you can play with it. A sense of period tends to come from knowing that period inside out and then filtering it for your readers. Screenwriter Robert McKee says in his 10 commandments ‘Thou shalt know thy imaginary world as well as thou knowest thine own.’ That statement applies to the writers’ background historical research. The less research you do, the further it removes you from the time and place you are attempting to portray. Not all that research has to go into the book, but you should know it at the sharp end of your pen!

    • Hilary Mantel herself does talk about moving a scene from one room to another if she can only be sure from the sources of the decor in one of them…similarly Justin Champion (https://ihrconference.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/the-popularity-of-historical-fiction-justin-champion/) quotes Ian Pears, author of ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’, talking about how he had to ditch a lengthy scene featuring characters looking out of the windows of a stage coach when he discovered coaches of the period had no windows. Professor Champion claims ]he would just have left it in!

      • I guess the integrity/conscience about authenticity level varies from author to author! I once wrote a scene at Ludlow Castle with a window facing the courtyard. Then went to the castle and realised that the tower in question was still in situ and that the window involved actually faced the ditch. The moment I got home I rewrote that scene. I get things wrong – which I generally discover after the book has been published, but I would never leave something in a work that I knew wasn’t correct. It would niggle at me like one of those scratchy clothing labels at the back of one’s neck.


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