Teaching Historical Fiction: Hilary Mantel and the Protestant Reformation

  • Mark Eaton
Part of the Teaching the New English book series (TENEEN)


This chapter analyzes Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy as a case study for what historical fiction can contribute to our understanding of history. In particular, I will attend to what her novels reveal about the complex processes of historical and religious change that occurred during the Protestant Reformation, which marked its 500th anniversary in late 2017. Guided by my experience teaching Mantel’s fiction in courses on contemporary British fiction and historical fiction at a large regional university in the USA, I examine the ways that literature offers a unique perspective on major historical developments in religion and theology, especially by giving readers an opportunity to encounter, and indeed inhabit, religious interiority. By showing how new religious ideas and sensibilities develop, how they come into conflict with older viewpoints, and how they are by turns absorbed, adopted, challenged, resisted or rejected, Mantel discloses how religion is subject to the same historical contingencies as anything else. Far from being timeless and unchanging, it is contextual and more often than not syncretistic.

The Wolf Hall Trilogy offers students one example of how a writer can take even a period as thoroughly documented as the Tudor dynasty, or a movement as widely studied as the Protestant Reformation, and somehow defamiliarize them, or make them seem fresh. She does this in part by rendering central episodes in early modern history from a more intimate point of view. Like Leo Tolstoy, Mantel is less interested in the politics of the period than in what it felt like to live through it. As such, history becomes more than simply the ‘background’ to historical fiction; rather, it becomes part of the very method of historical fiction. In turn, students are invited to reflect on their own methods of reading and interpreting literature. Reading historical fiction necessarily involves us in multiple temporalities: the time period when the work is set, when it was written, and when we are reading it. Students may be led to reconsider their own beliefs, whether or not they are religious, in light of an earlier period of momentous historical change.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark Eaton
    • 1
  1. 1.Azusa Pacific UniversityAzusaUSA

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