History as a text – Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures

In her Reith lecture recently, the double Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, said:

“history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.”

Hayden White, somebody who we might characterise as a ‘postmodern historian’, similarly claims that all history is text, and is subject to the same subjective interpretative understandings and misunderstandings as any other piece of writing. In addition, the historical record is often in the hands of those wishing to put their side of events, and it is history’s winners whose version gets to become the ‘official’ history. White identifies how events don’t always fit into the comforting structures of narrative, how events don’t always lend themselves to a beginning, a middle and an end. In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, he argues that:

‘But real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be. …The lateness of the invention of historical discourse in human history and the difficulty of sustaining it in times of cultural breakdown (as in the early Middle Ages) suggest the artificiality of the notion that real events could “speak themselves” or be represented as “telling their own story”…. It is because real events do not offer themselves as stories that narrativization is so difficult.’

History then, as Mantel identifies above, is an unreliable witness to the events of the past, and we can never recover them with any objective clarity. As Mantel says, ‘history …. is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.’ The unreliable nature of history, and who controls the official record, have concerned many great writers of recent years. Toni Morrison has explored the legacy of slavery in black communities, Tim O’Brien has wrestled with the un-tellable story of Vietnam, and E L Doctorow has fictionalised the histories of those marginalised and ignored by the official historical record. From these writers, I teach Song of Solomon (but Beloved is probably Morrison’s finest achievement), In the Lake of the Woods, and The Book of Daniel. From these texts, we learn that history has competing interpretations of the past, and the un-official histories of the unvoiced has an equal claim to be heard.

You can listen to the Reith Lectures on the BBC iPlayer.