In an article previewing her BBC Reith Lectures, Hilary Mantel says that women writers of historical fiction “can’t resist retrospectively empowering” women who lived in the past – women who, in reality, were more likely to be “victims” than the “strong and independent” characters required by modern readers.
Ms Mantel advises writers to “be careful when we speak for others” and stop being “squeamish” about the “difference between the role of men and women in certain historical periods”.
“A good novelist will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.”
The readers’ comments that follow this short piece give a foretaste of the lively debate to come.
The first of Ms Mantel’s five Reith Lectures will be broadcast on Radio 4 on June 13.
Postscript added January 2018: all five of Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith lectures are available on podcasts; search within your usual podcast provider. Essential listening. My favourite is Can These Bones Live? an analysis of how historical fiction can make the past come to life.