Yesterday John Banville dropped by for a Q&A with us, which as ever I enjoyed very much. He was very still and pensive, talking in a low and steady voice with his eyes on the ground, gesticulations only just energetic enough to swirl red wine up the sides of his glass. But very sparky in his thoughts about the ‘splendid struggle’ of writing, over which he seems to have exerted his own kind of calm control: he has notebooks specially made for him, and likes nice fountain pens (‘Japanese. Exquisite.’), but concedes that ‘in the end it’s just you and the page’. He doesn’t move on from a sentence until it’s exactly right, and rarely writes more than a paragraph a day. Nevertheless, he does not redraft.

What I found very interesting was that he said he often had difficulty in expressing exactly what he meant because ‘language has its own things to say’. That words are not neutral – this is important to remember, that they are not always obedient tools but in fact sometimes ‘intervene’ between us and our meaning. It also leads me, thank goodness, to the post I have been meaning to write for ages, re: the history of mentalities and emotions.

Malcolm Gaskill came to talk to us about this stuff a few weeks ago. Basically it’s the recognition of the ‘mental universe’ that exists in all eras of the past and the present and which facilitates the formulation and expression of ideas. A history of mentalities shows slower and gentler changes than, say, the history of politics, which can be all over the shop in the space of four years depending on what events it must respond to. The history of mentalities also hopes to reconstruct a sense of the universal experience: rather than only the exploits of the literate, wealthy, and powerful, it inquires into what the values and beliefs of the ordinary people might have been.

Saudade, by Almeida Junior, 1899

A historian of emotions, by extension, enquires whether people in the past felt the same as they do nowadays. It’s just about reasonable to test this by looking at whether people from different cultures today think about emotions differently. This 2010 article by Barbara H Rosenwein (which is very worth reading, along with Patrick H Hutton’s The History of Mentalities, if you can get into JSTOR) quotes Caroline Lutz’s book about the Ifaluk people, whose words for emotions do not correlate to ours. Their word fago, for example, ‘could be described only very inadequately by the odd combination of “compassion, love, and sadness”‘. However, it’s not even necessary to go so far afield to see how different cultures conceptualise emotions through their language (and therefore in their mental framework): saudade in Portugal; schadenfreude in Germany; and the lovely Russian toska.

Whether or not emotions like anger, joy or grief are universal, they are certainly not always privileged in the same way. For example, we know that during the age of chivalry, romantic love was prized in a specific context, but the suggestion that it might form the basis of a successful marriage was regarded with great suspicion. It’s also possible to wonder whether soldiers back in the day were fearless in battle, or whether it was simply not possible for them to acknowledge or express this fear. When did it become permissible, and what had to change for this to occur? I could write about this all day, and it might merit another post soon, but I’ll leave it for now.

It seems to me that there is a level of curating involved in historical fiction – it’s kind of like museum interpretation. I went to the Foundling Museum once and found it a bit peculiar, the stress they put on how miserable it must have been for the children to live in an institution. It’s powerful because nowadays we think of the family as the most important unit, and the appropriate place for children. You only have to look at Gin Lane to see that in the 18th century this was not necessarily so, although the idea was emerging. Assuming first that as an unmarried mother you cared about your illegitimate child, or that you had some other motivation to safeguard its wellbeing (eg religion), you had a choice. Keep it with you and expose it to shame, destitution, and probably some kind of dreadful necrotizing disease? Or give it up to the Foundling Hospital where  it would be fed, clothed, educated, and taught a trade? It’s a no-brainer, surely. Sometimes family is an awful hindrance.

I have a serious suspicion that Hilary Mantel did just this sort of emotional curating in Wolf Hall. One of the things that sort of recommends Cromwell to us in the novel is what a family man he was. He loves his children, he loves his wife, but he also opens up his home to all these waifs and strays. He takes care of people. He likes to have kids in the house. It’s very lightly done, but I am convinced that Mantel knew what she was up to. To us, the family is an intimate, private, closed unit. In our world, Cromwell’s bringing outsiders into his domestic space is a sign of exceptional generosity. Back then, no. The family was an economic unit, first of all: it was about making good connections and ensuring you had somebody to carry on your work for you. It wasn’t uncommon for girls (at least of a particular social stratus) to be sent while still young children to live with the family they were to marry into. It made sense.

Basically, back then the word ‘family’ meant something a bit more like ‘household’: it expanded to include these betrothed girls, apprentices, wards, and long-term servant types who did the family a service but who in turn were looked after. The mediaeval and Tudor paterfamilias had a responsibility of benevolence and care. Mantel knows this, obviously, but she allows the reader to believe that this is not just Cromwell doing what was expected of him, but as evidence to challenge and complicate the popular image of him as a power-hungry psychopath. You’ll notice that Thomas More also has hangers-on in his household, but that Mantel marks him out as a bad’un by having him bully and humiliate them.

I think that Banville is absolutely correct: language definitely has its own things to say. We need to be aware of how loaded the words we try to make work for us can be. But sometimes it is their loadedness that makes them valuable. One of the delights of writing fiction set in the past is creating a mental and emotional world that is alien to the reader, but feels vivid: that’s one way of curating your facts. Another way is to exploit their lack of knowledge and manipulate them into coming to a conclusion that suits you. Good trick, huh?