What wisdom do the dead offer us? The Reith Lectures by Hilary Mantel

What lessons can history give us? And where do we go to find those lessons? Maybe the best historical fiction can help us. Dame Hilary Mantel certainly thinks so. In the 2017 BBC Reith Lectures, Mantel explores how fiction can let the restless dead tell us things we need to know, if we listen. Lecture 1.
Hilary Mantel (AP/Alastair Grant)

What lessons can history give us? And where do we go to find those lessons? Maybe the best historical fiction can help us. Dame Hilary Mantel certainly thinks so. In the 2017 BBC Reith Lectures, Mantel explores how fiction can let the restless dead tell us things we need to know, if we listen. Part 1 of 4-part series. Remaining episodes air October 12, 19, and 26.

**Audio for this episode is only available for a limited period. The lectures are still available on the BBC Reith Lectures website.

The art and craft of resurrection

What wisdom do the dead offer us?  Maybe art can present a way to bring the dead back to life, so they can give us their lessons directly.  There's a lot of historical fiction, but very few absolute masters of it.  Dame Hilary Mantel is one of them.  

Her novels about Tudor England — Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies — are  an international sensation, on the page and on the screen, not just for their gripping plots and characters, but for how they bring a distant past to vivid and engrossing life.

In her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures entitled Resurrection: The Art And Craft, Dame Hilary explores how we can capture history in art, and use that art to understand the past, and ourselves.  

Lecture 1  is recorded in front of an audience at Halle St Peter's in Manchester, and is followed by a question and answer session chaired by Sue Lawley. 

Lecture 1: The Day Is for the Living (excerpt)

St Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn't believe in ghosts to see that's true. We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us. History, and science too, help us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.

There is a poem by WH Auden, called 'As I Walked Out One Evening':
The glacier knocks in the cupboard The desert sighs in the bed
And the crack in the teacup opens A lane to the land of the dead

The purpose of my first lecture is to ask if this lane is two-way street. In imagination, we chase the dead, shouting, 'Come back!' We may suspect that the voices we hear are an echo of our own, and the movement we see is our own shadow. But we sense the dead have a vital force still – they have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding. In these talks, I hope to show there are techniques we can use. I don't claim we can hear the past or see it. But I say we can listen and look.


**The producer of The Reith Lectures for the BBC is Jim Frank.
**For IDEAS this episode was produced by Dave Redel.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.