Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reading History Without Judgement

I am currently reading Hilary Mantle's phenomenal Wolf Hall (a must read for Tudorphiles and Anglopihles alike.)  In an interview with The Guardian, Mantel sets out how she approached writing a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and 16th-century Tudor England:
Her aim was to place the reader in "that time and that place, putting you into Henry's entourage. The essence of the thing is not to judge with hindsight, not to pass judgment from the lofty perch of the 21st century when we know what happened. It's to be there with them in that hunting party at Wolf Hall, moving forward with imperfect information and perhaps wrong expectations, but in any case moving forward into a future that is not predetermined, but where chance and hazard will play a terrific role."
Not only am I enjoying Wolf Hall, because of the plot, characters, and especially Mantel's writing, but also because I fundamentally believe in her approach to studying and writing about historical events and people. It is common, frequent, and easy to attribute emotions to historical figures and imagine what they would have felt in a given moment. And yet, Mantel steers from this introspective method to one of observation.

Mantel separates the study of the past from the assumptions of the present day. She reveals the Tudor world unencumbered by our omniscient knowledge of what will occur.
Despite the inevitability of Cromwell's death, however, [Mantel] said that "in every scene, even the quiet ones, I try to create turning points, multiple turning points. So the reader knows how it's going to turn out, but the reader's expectation of how and why is constantly challenged."
The discovery of truth in the study of a person, place, or time can only be done without the clouded visions and thoughts of today. To approach history without the veil of modern knowledge and judgement is difficult, but doing so honors the subject matter.

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