Historical fiction is a unique genre. History and fiction come together and blur the lines of reality. For many, historical fiction can be an escape from the reality of modern times. As an English major, and as someone with an interest in literature, I know that when studying different areas of literature, you also submerse yourself into history. This history that surrounds prominent authors of the ages gives readers a better understanding of the texts and pieces that they are studying.
One author that is widely pronounced within historical fiction is Hilary Mantel. Mantel has published memoirs and short stories, but she is best known for her soon-to-be completed trilogy about Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power during the reign of Henry VIII. The first book of the trilogy is Wolf Hall, following is Bring Up the Bodies. The third and final book of the trilogy is The Mirror and Light which is still a work in progress.
Now you may be asking yourself how Hilary Mantel’s trilogy pertains to you as someone who studies literature. Mantel’s books are centered around the Tudor Monarch and courtiers during the Renaissance period. During this time came about the Tudor sonnet. When reading Mantel’s books, you will come across the character of Sir Thomas Wyatt, who was a known poet and courtier whose work is still studied today. Wyatt was one of the earliest poets of the English Renaissance, and he brought about significant innovations within English poetry, as well as, helped in the introduction of the sonnet from Italy into England. Wyatt was also heavily involved within court politics, which is why he would be included within Mantel’s fiction. This extension of Sir Thomas Wyatt as a character is surely fictional, but this is where the lines blur between reality and fiction; Wyatt is presented with qualities of his true self but also ones that have been exaggerated. There surely is not enough information regarding Wyatt to truly produce him as a character within a book. Using information about the society that Wyatt lived in, which was court society, his own poetry, and the bits and pieces we do know, such as his relations among others, Mantel is able to fill in the gaps with her own details.
As someone who studies literature and has had to take classes on the importance of Renaissance literature, it is super interesting to see a poet that you have studied come alive into a character within a genre. I think this trilogy by Hilary Mantel can be a creative way to submerse yourself into the history of a time-period that many English majors may study. Mantel, as a writer has a true art for presenting fact but also extending the truth into fiction. When studying Renaissance literature, and having to read the work of Sir Thomas Wyatt, I found that reading Mantel’s books helped me better understand the context of the world that Wyatt lived in. It allowed me to better understand his poetry because I could get a sense of the life of Tudor Court. While historical fiction is not truth, it can help you as a reader to better understand some of the texts and pieces you have to read for classes within your major. So, next time if you struggle to read a piece of literature from a time-period way before your own, maybe check out some historical fiction that could help guide you along the way.
If you are interested in further reading any of Hilary Mantel’s other work please check out her website hilary-mantel.com.
– Leah Meldrum