I’ve always loved historical fiction. I discovered Jean Plaidy in Snaith library when I was about twelve and binge read my way through Henry VIII and all those wives in large print plastic-wrapped hardbacks. The thing that is handy about historical fiction is that it is learning on the sly. I’ve never studied History but would bet a fiver that I know more about Catherine de Medici than pretty much any English person who doesn’t have a degree in French History. Possibly for that reason, I am a bit of a purist in that I like the sort of books that have real people reimagined but that don’t veer too far from the source material. Okay by me to make up emotions, but not to invent facts.
Laurent Binet in his magnificent novel HHhH rather disagrees and a sizeable chunk of his retelling of the assassination of Heydrich is given over to examining how far it is appropriate to dramatise history – in his view, not very far at all. He does all this so interestingly and so amusingly, whilst never detracting from the very many horrors that he depicts. I can’t think of many books that have provoked the range of emotions in me that this one does. I thought I’d learn things, I expected to be moved but I didn’t know that I’d laugh as much as I did. It is a measure of my obsession with this book that I am reading it in the original French. Though, that’s not strictly true. I’ve bought it in French but haven’t yet started to read it. I like the idea of reading it in French. I like the idea of getting ever closer to this story, of visiting the scene, of sitting on a bench in Prague imaging Heydrich and his assassins and the way they must all have felt. Perhaps my obsession is in part because Binet has refused to speculate on what they felt. If he doesn’t know it, he doesn’t use it, so what we get is accurate but also leaves an intriguingly unpopulated space for the reader’s imagination to dance around in.
Today is the anniversary of the day that Anne Boylen was beheaded, the day on which her little neck was scythed off by a swordsman brought from France. Hilary Mantel has continued to explore the Tudor world through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell in Bring up the Bodies which deals with the downfall of Anne Boylen. This is the book I was most looking forward to reading this year and even with that level of expectation it blew my socks off. If you only read one book this year, or indeed ever, this should be the one. Mantel creates a world so vivid that I continually caught myself thinking, ‘oh, so that was how it was’ and having to remind myself that I was actually reading a fiction. I want to read it over and over again, preferably in the cafe at The National Portrait Gallery so that I can keeping popping into the Tudor corner to stare at Cromwell’s portrait. And something interesting ocurred to me this morning – surely Bring up the Bodies is a huge contender for the Booker Prize in which case it would be the first time an author won it for two successive novels on the same subject.
That Catherine de Medici I mentioned was a lonely girl who turned into a cruel woman – she drilled a hole in the ceiling so that she could torture herself by spying on her husband in bed with his mistress the very beautiful femme d’une certain age Diane de Poitier. Doesn’t that just make you want to run off and read a novel about her? Or even write one.
And is it true? I don’t know. I read it in a novel.
If you would like to visit a bookshop to look at these books I particularly recommend Hatchards on Piccadilly which is the oldest bookshop in London and has a very good historical fiction section, where I spent many an afternoon in 2007-8 putting all the Jean Plaidys in the correct series order. They also have separate sections for historical and classic crime. That’s a whole other exciting topic but will have to wait for another day. I bought HHhH from the brilliantly large foreign language section at Foyles on Charing Cross Road. I took the photo I’ve used here in the Waterstones at Chiswick.