onsdag 4 juli 2012

The uses and hazards of corrective historical fiction

I still remember when I realised that the picture of the French Revolution painted in the Scarlet Pimpernel books may not be the whole truth (in fact not true at all, as it later turned out). It was when, as a young girl, I read a novel called Jacobin's Daughter by Joanne Williamson. It told the story of the Duplay family, with whom Maximilien Robespierre lodged in Paris, and the protagonist is the youngest Duplay daughter Babette. It appealed very much to my girlish romantic mind - Babette's own love story ending with her marriage to Robespierre-chum Philippe Lebas is made much of, naturally, and the author has chosen to depict Babette's sister Eléonore's love for Robespierre as being requited - and made a lasting impression. Where were the blood-thirsty, brutal monsters of the Scarlet Pimpernel books? Suddenly, the revolution's leaders were seen in a new light, as pleasant and well-meaning young men.

Of course the view on Robespierre and the rest is rose-tinted, as you'd expect when the story is told by an idealistic young girl full of sisterly fondness for her family's nice lodger. But for its (mainly young) readers, the book acts as a counterweight to tales of stricken noblemen hounded by dirty revolutionaries. On its own, it is as one-sided as the Scarlet Pimpernel books, but in the context of putting the other guy's case it made my (and I'm guessing many other readers') overall view of the French Revolution more rounded. I've read more balanced accounts of the French Revolution since which counteract the Pimpernel's perfidious influence, but Williamson was first.

What prompted this memory was an unusually sour review of Hilary Mantel's second novel about Thomas Cromwell, Bring Up The Bodies. The reviewer's main quarrel with the novel seems to be that it depicts Cromwell in such a favourable light, and by doing so risks giving readers the wrong idea about Tudor history. In one way, I have sympathy for the reviewer's plight: she is obviously a great admirer of Thomas More, so reading a book told from Cromwell's point of view must be utterly distasteful to her. It's as if I had been forced to read (oh horrid thought) a novel painting a rosy picture of Talleyrand. But surely she is missing the point of Mantel's enterprise, which is to give a historical personage otherwise largely vilified his day in court.

Where else will you find a defence of Thomas Cromwell? In popular fiction and TV dramas like The Tudors and Henry VIII he is depicted, at best as a wily and weaselly courtier, at worst as a queen-murdering monastery-burning bully. Mantel's novels (I haven't read Bring Up The Bodies yet, I'm waiting for the paperback, but I have read Wolf Hall) simply tell the other side of the story. And isn't it about time someone tried to? In my view, the Sainted More has had things his own way for far too long. This humourless, Richard-III-slandering, collective-property-extolling prig certainly can't complain of usually getting a bad press, quite the contrary. Mantel's novels are examples - like Jacobin's Daughter and Gone With The Wind - of "corrective" historical fiction, shining a light on a point in history from an unexpected angle. These accounts, biased as they are, are the answer to other biased accounts which have long held sway over the popular imagination.

Having said that, there is a risk of going too far in this kind of fiction. You can be as biased as you like, but there is a limit to how much you can allow yourself to twist the truth. I did think Gone With The Wind crossed the line at times, quite blatantly - sorry, Ashley and his pals are the members of what? As for Mantel, if she really does try to fudge the issue of how the confessions of Anne Boleyn's supposed lovers were extricated, as the reviewer claims, then she is cheating. Given the fact that they were innocent, and facing charges of high treason which meant death by barbaric means, somehow I don't think they spilled the beans during a friendly chat.

After all, part of the interest of "corrective" fiction is to see how certain compromising events are, as it were, explained away. Its subjects are seldom all-out heroic. Cromwell did make sure, among other things, that a woman and a handful of men were executed on trumped-up charges just because the king felt like getting himself a new wife. The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution was ghastly and led to innocent people (most of them non-aristocratic) having their head chopped off, or worse. And don't get me started on the Old South. But this doesn't mean that history isn't much more complex than various moralists have claimed. Bring up the apologia for Cromwell, and let's hear what he (through Mantel) has to say for himself.