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On Accessibility in Historical Fiction

I’ve generally enjoyed Graywolf Press’s “Art of” series, a group of books focusing on different topics pertaining to writing (The Art of Subtext, The Art of Perspective, The Art of Time, etc.), and I’ve mentioned several of the books on this blog before—but recently, I found myself objecting to many of the arguments made in Christopher Bram’s The Art of History. In particular, in a chapter on historical detail, Bram critiques one of my favorite works of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is written almost entirely in period details in close-up, a bold experiment that works for some readers but not for me. Striving for immediacy, the novel is all present-tense moments with the context deliberately left out. What remains is a brilliant, woozy, Joycean surface of robust prose, but the novel often feels like it’s all lobster mayonnaise and no lobster. . . . It helps if you know the history, or have at least seen A Man for All Seasons, but even then all is confusion and chaos. There’s no room to breathe or to feel any emotion. The reader learns nothing new about history or human nature.

He goes on to compare the novel to Ford Maddox Ford’s The Fifth Queen and argues that “[The Fifth Queen] may be slightly more old-fashioned than Wolf Hall, but [he finds] it more accessible.” Here is the crux of the issue—the emphasis on accessibility. Should accessibility really be the goal of historical fiction? Bram does acknowledge all the positive attributes of Wolf Hall: the immediacy, the robust prose, the Joycean style—but then easily dismisses them all with this simple word “accessibility.” I’ve argued before on this blog about the problem with using “relatability” as a metric for judging fiction, and my problem with the idea of “accessibility” is large the same: it turns fiction, which should be about exposing a reader to a new world and a new way of seeing, into nothing more than a mirror, reflecting back a comforting and familiar vision.

For historical fiction, it’s even more important to go beyond this mirrored state. After all, we’re not just trying to give readers a vision of a past that’s recognizable and familiar, reducing history to the banality that “it’s just like our world!” Bram acknowledges this at the end of the chapter when he discusses the “’fallacy of ‘presentism,’ the assumption that the past is just like the present and the inner lives of humans remain the same from one century to the next.” But then he does a sudden about-face and says that he believes “the past is different but similar enough for us to see ourselves reflected there, like a fun-house mirror in which our experience and our psychology are duplicated with fresh proportions, revealing distortions and strange, expressive shapes.” Despite the distortions and strange expressive shapes, Bram is ultimately arguing that we should read historical fiction to look for ourselves, which I think is a deeply narcissistic way of approaching literature. I didn’t pick up Wolf Hall, a book about an unfamiliar culture from a long time ago, because I wanted to see reflections of my own middle-class American psychology—and while I may recognize some of my own ambition and sense of striving in Thomas Cromwell, ultimately this is not what I was looking for or why I found the book so compelling.

I also object to Bram’s claim that Wolf Hall gives us no room for emotion or gives the reader nothing new about history or human nature. His argument here is based on a point he makes early on in the same chapter: while good historical fiction uses lots of specific detail to emphasize what is different, “if things are too different, however, we can’t connect or respond.” Just as he did with his point about mirrors, he’s arguing here that emotional engagement can only come from familiarity, from what is recognizable to us amidst what is different. But I completely disagree. The power of a work of historical fiction like Wolf Hall is getting us to feel emotion about something totally unfamiliar to us. Any writer can get the reader to feel sad at recognizable tragedies like the death of a child or a loved one (which happens often enough in Wolf Hall). But Mantel’s genius is to get us so invested in Cromwell’s world and subjectivity that we feel emotional at things we would otherwise never have reacted to. Here, for example, is Cromwell reflecting on the old-fashioned Henry Percy, who’s trying to use his aristocratic privilege to stand in King Henry’s way:

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

This is one of Wolf Hall’s more oft-quoted passages, as it succinctly summarizes the book’s themes and worldview. But what I find powerful here is the lament for the old-fashioned view of power. It’s not just Henry Percy who has a misguided idea of the world. It’s us, the readers, whose idea of the Tudor court is a romantic swirl of sex and honor fed by plays and other novels and movies and television shows. Mantel is literally demonstrating here the power of good historical fiction, by telling us that maybe the world we thought was familiar is actually unfamiliar and showing us something different. As for emotion, we end up feeling both Percy’s sadness and Cromwell’s pity.

In another section later in the book, after Cromwell is secure in his power at the Tudor court, he reflects in a moment of melancholy on the Englishmen who lived on this land before him:

And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marches of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and bogarts who live in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearts, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.

The emotion here comes from the melancholy that Cromwell feels realizing that there is a whole realm beyond his control—the realm of the dead, the realm of history. Because we’ve been so attached to Cromwell’s perspective and followed him so closely as he’s risen to power, we too feel some of his melancholy in this moment as he reflects on this world beyond his control. And just as with the passage about Henry Percy, Mantel is making a metacomment on the nature of historical fiction—to Cromwell, the “hobs and bogarts” and “wild men” of England’s folklore are an unfamiliar history beyond his control, just as to us Cromwell’s Renaissance world of countinghouses is an unfamiliar history beyond our control. By contrast, historical fiction that rests on accessibility and relatability is a misguided attempt to try to bring history under our control.

Bram goes on critique another work of historical fiction that I deeply admire, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which I’ve written on this blog before. “The repetitious, tortoise-paced narrative,” Bram writes, “is meant to parody medieval scholasticism, but it gives the reader surprisingly little in the way of striking details or involving story from one chapter to the next.” This analysis for me confirms that Bram and I don’t see eye to on historical fiction at all. To me, The Name of the Rose is far from “tortoise-paced” and has plenty of striking details and an incredibly involving and moving story (moreover, I personally think medieval scholasticism is itself extremely fascinating). Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and I can respect Bram’s ideas even if I disagree with them completely. But I do think it’s worth pointing out that Wolf Hall not only won the 2009 Man Booker Prize but has along with its sequel Bring Up the Bodies sold over three million copies, suggesting that maybe audiences aren’t really all that interested in accessibility.