How easy is it to deploy large historical characters, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Captain Scott, in the cast of a novel? And is their familiarity to the reader a help or a hindrance? Beryl Bainbridge first branched into her own distinctive version of historical fiction with The Birthday Boys (1991), the story of Scott’s ill-fated Antartic expedition. Since then, she has explored in fiction, the Crimean War, the sinking of the Titanic and Dr Johnson’s relationship with Hester Thrale. Hilary Mantel has, in earlier novels, drawn on the 18th century, looking to the French Revolution and, for The Giant, O’Brien, the story of an 8ft 4in Irishman who was exhibited as a freak. In May, she will publish Wolf Hall, ‘the most savage piece of writing I’ve ever done’, centring on Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell. She and Beryl Bainbridge read from their work, and reflect on what it is like, but for themselves and for everyone around them, to plunge into the past.
We are grateful to the Royal Literary Fund for sponsoring this meeting.
Recorded on Monday 20 April 2009.