Hilary Mantel and the curation of memory

Thinking between the lines of the deservedly respectful obituaries for Hilary Mantel, who died last week, a swelling impression is that she was not so much a writer of historical fiction as she was a curator and philosopher of memory. While librarians and booksellers would be happy for a descriptor that made their filing jobs easy, the emerging truth is that her work was fiction only in the most superficial sense, and historical only in providing subjects who could not sue.

In Hilary Mantel’s dedication to notions of ambiguity and nuance, she was far more interested in the examination of human behaviour and vulnerability, and the means by which these are mediated by memory.

Philosophical speculations about the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice – or even once – come down to appreciation of definitions, context, and perspective. It’s not just about the river, after all: is it the “same” for me as it is for you, and so on. And then in comes the rich imagination of the memorialising Mantel, who conjures not only the differing experience of two different riverbank steppers, but their memories of an intervening time when they spoke about their earlier experiences, since which time their memories have evolved.

Isn’t philosophy fun? And where would it be without humans and history? One obituarist provides a stunning but typical example of how memory can work in ensuring that “history is always changing behind us”. In the first book of the famous Cromwell trilogy, our hero recalls a boyhood experience of watching the burning of a heretic, and the moment reflects a conflagration of innocence. Years later, in the trilogy’s concluding novel, the same memory is recalled but by the older man. It is mediated by subsequent years of adult reflection on the claustrophobic terrors that try to impose limits where dreams used to be. Keeping those dreams alive – in the words of Hilary Mantel, moving determinedly towards the light – is humanity’s enduring struggle.

Here is where, with the help of our more imaginative novelists, we may be on the brink of a revolution in how we tell stories about ourselves: how we write history and step into the past, how we hold it up in our reflective present, how we accommodate the shifting perspectives of memory in retailing what was in the emerging flow of what is ceaselessly becoming. In short, what is the future of history?

Of course it was always about far more than “one damned thing after another”. (Good joke, though) Nor was it, to borrow on another famous thought experiment, a succession of trees falling in the forest, the cacophony of cracking being entirely dependent upon the presence of a hiker with a recording device. The context within which “stuff happens” and, more importantly, is subsequently recalled is what matters. It is our talking about it that enables the enduring immersion in the wider human experience of this fascinating world of trees, and of rivers. And as we listen, see, and feel, it is in our memories that art, and our best historical novelists, emerge.