History, Imagination, and Invention

Hilary Mantel is giving this year’s Reith Lectures on history and fiction and we invite anyone interested in her talks and her work to join in discussion of her lectures here.

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If you would like to blog for us on any aspect of Mantel’s Lectures or how you address issues she raises in your own work, please email h.rogers@ljmu.ac.uk or DM @HelenRogers19c.

We hope to continue the conversation beginning here at the forthcoming Creative Histories conference at Bristol University, 19-21 July 2017, organized by Will Pooley @willpooley. For more information and registration click here.

 Our first blog post is by Helen Rogers.



I have been looking forward to Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures. She does not disappoint. Does anyone write more exquisitely either about the idea of history or the art of the historical novelist than Mantel in her opening lecture, published today in the Guardian?[1]

Mantel is astute in her assessment of the historian’s craft, and in what it shares with the historical novelist’s art, and where they depart.

The historian, the biographer, the writer of fiction work within different constraints, but in a way that is complementary, not opposite. The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts. Even the driest, most data-driven research involves an element of interpretation. Deep research in the archives can be reported in tabular form and lists, by historians talking to each other. But to talk to their public, they use the same devices as all storytellers – selection, elision, artful arrangement. The 19th-century historian Lord Macaulay said, “History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason.”

So what, then, are the differences in how historians and historical novelists use imagination and interpretation? For Mantel, it comes down to emotions and feeling.

To retrieve history we need rigour, integrity, unsparing devotion and an impulse to scepticism. To retrieve the past, we require all those virtues, and something more. If we want added value – to imagine not just how the past was, but what it felt like, from the inside – we pick up a novel. The historian and the biographer follow a trail of evidence, usually a paper trail. The novelist does that too, and then performs another act, puts the past back into process, into action, frees the people from the archive and lets them run about, ignorant of their fates, with all their mistakes unmade.

But is it only through a novel—or other works of fiction—that we can feel the past from the inside? Surely creative non-fiction, including historical works, can do this too?

In the book I am writing on the encounters between prisoners and their teacher—Conviction: Sin and Salvation in a Victorian Gaol—I have been using a variety of story-telling techniques to free the convicted from the prison archive and to make them come alive on the page.

My starting point was the journals in which the teacher, Sarah Martin, recorded her interactions with prisoners. The scenes conjured by these diary entries are like flickering sequences from black-and-white silent film. Voices and conversations are compressed into brief captions of dialogue, inserted between stills and the teacher’s judgmental remarks on the characters in view.

To animate the drama and adjust the frame, so readers can see each scene from different points of view, I draw on what I have discovered about prisoners’ histories and the circumstances that led them to the gaol. Suspense lies not in proving guilt or innocence but in illuminating the small dramas of ordinary lives, both eventful and mundane, and the rhythms and discords of human interaction and emotion.

The stories I recreate are not fictional in the way of a novel. Historical novelists and literary non-fiction writers usually do their research before they write, then put their notes aside so they are free to imagine and invent without being weighed down by detail.[2] But only by keeping the records close can I evoke a sense of time and place. Each story emerges out of the details.

All the dialogue in my book is taken from historical sources—the pre-trial examinations, the Gaoler’s books, and the teacher’s journals—because these are the nearest I can get to the words that were spoken. Occasionally, I change reported speech into the first-person in order to convey immediacy and pace, and, for the purpose of clarity, I standardize names and sometimes alter wording slightly.

But I also imagine episodes that the prison visitor only hinted at in her writing in order to explore the memories and doubts that both fired and disturbed her conviction. The mood and atmosphere in these sequences are drawn from what I know of the prison visitor’s character, conveyed by all her writings and actions. And through dramatic reconstruction, I also aim to lift the convicted out of the cells in order to show individuals on their own turf and as they saw themselves—as personalities rather than as the caricatures depicted in the bald, terse lines of the prison records.

Hilary Mantel says she uses invention to explore her characters’ interior lives rather than their historical environment—though I suspect she is teasing us:

These erasures and silences made me into a novelist, but at first I found them simply disconcerting. I didn’t like making things up, which put me at a disadvantage. In the end I scrambled through to an interim position that satisfied me. I would make up a man’s inner torments, but not, for instance, the colour of his drawing room wallpaper.

When my book eventually came out, after many years, one snide critic – who was putting me in my place, as a woman writing about men doing serious politics – complained there was a lot in it about wallpaper. Believe me, I thought, hand on heart, that there was not nearly enough.

But for me, whether it is documented or invented, the colour of wallpaper—just like the clothes a prisoner wore or the objects they stole—is a way of intimating personality and imagining an individual’s inner life as well as gesturing to their place in the social world.

In one tale, for instance, I dramatize Sarah Martin’s account of a visit from a former smuggler, four years after he was imprisoned. The story is reconstructed from a few lines from her Liberated Prisoners Book and leaves her puzzling over the gifts he has brought her—a vase covered in shells, and a curious glass boxhis gratitude for what he thought his obligation to me. From this opening dramatization, I go back into social history mode to explore what Charles Redwood’s life might tell us about relationships between maritime occupations, offending, and going-straight. But I end by moving into story again with an invented scene that stands in contrast with the encounter between the mariner and prison teacher: the sailor’s return home.

At the click of the latch, young Lewis runs squealing to the door and tugs at his father’s breeches. Sarah is all smiles. He feels the baby, firm in her belly, as he presses her in his arms. This one will not know his Daddy go to gaol.

Sitting in his chair by the hearth, he keeps an eye on the potatoes bubbling on the stove while his daughters set the table. Suddenly he is hungry as the herrings, bought today in Yarmouth, sizzle smoky-sweet on the griddle. Up on the mantelpiece, Sarah has added the vase to the collection of shell decorations, treasured by sailors, which her husband has brought back from his travels. The new jewellery box has pride of place, already containing her blue bead necklace and money for next week’s housekeeping. Its glinting glass casts flickering rays of lamplight onto the picture above. Cut out from a magazine, it’s his favourite print, A Sailor’s Family by Rowlandson.

He turns away from the merry picture and looks at his own happy band, gathered around the table, his wife beckoning him. For a moment he thinks of Miss Martin, sat at the table in her spartan room, writing out verses for the prisoners to copy. Charles Redwood shakes his head, then joins the homecoming supper, beaming.

I cannot know, of course, if Charles Redwood returned home that night or if he had a print of Rowlandson’s drawing, though I do know his wife was pregnant. Should I make this clear to readers?

At a fantastic panel on ‘Storytelling, Memory, Imagination’ at the recent Berkshire Women’s History conference, I confessed I have begun to make things up.[3] The panellists—novelists, historical novelists, and historians—instantly agreed I should not break the reader’s trust in the historian: if I make things up, I must come clean.

Should I put my invented scenes in italics, I wonder? But where does imaginative reconstruction end and invention begin? I am not sure that my opening scenes with Charles Redwood are any more or less true than the closing scene, and all are closely tied to the historical sources that inspired them.

‘In any novel, once it’s finished’, writes Hilary Mantel, ‘you can’t separate fact from fiction – it’s like trying to return mayonnaise to oil and egg yolk.’ Perhaps it’s the same for the history I am writing? Maybe this historian has to trust her readers?


What do you think? What is the role of imagination in history writing and is there room for invention? Should historians be more transparent in their use of literary techniques than fiction writers and how can they do this without losing the reader’s interest? What other imaginative devices have historians employed in their work and what can make a work of history as gripping as a good novel?

Add your thoughts to the comments below or join the twitter conversation @ #storypast

[1] Listen to this first lecture in the series, ‘The Day is for the Living’ (BBC Radio 4, 13 June 2017) here.

[2] See writers’ reflections, ‘Literary Non-Fiction: The Facts’, Guardian, 21 September, 2012 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/21/literary-nonfiction-the-facts

[3] ‘Storytelling, Memory, Imagination: Narrative and the Writing of History’, with Martha Hodes, Leslie M. Harris, Tiya Miles, and Sarah Schulman. Berkshire Women’s History Conference, Hofstra University, 4 June 2017.

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