Silence grips the town: The Reith Lectures by Hilary Mantel

What lessons can history offer us? And how do we interpret those lessons accurately? In the third of her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures, Dame Hilary Mantel tells the story of how an obsessive relationship with history killed the young Polish writer Stanislawa Przybyszewska. Part 3 of 4.
Hilary Mantel (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

In the third of her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures, Dame Hilary Mantel tells the story of how an obsessive relationship with history killed the young Polish writer Stanislawa Przybyszewska. The brilliant Przybyszewska wrote gargantuan plays and novels about the French Revolution, in particular about the revolutionary leader Robespierre. She lived in self-willed poverty and isolation and died unknown in 1934. But her work, so painfully achieved, did survive her. Was her sacrifice worthwhile? "She embodied the past until her body ceased to be," Dame Hilary says. "Multiple causes of death were recorded, but actually she died of Robespierre".  Part 4 airs October 26.

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 3 is recorded in front of an audience at Butcher's Guild Hall in Antwerp, Belgium, and is followed by a question and answer session chaired by Sue Lawley. 

**Please note The Reith Lectures are not available as a podcast.

Lecture 3: Silence Grips the Town (Excerpt)

"Around the new year of 1928, a young Polish writer moved into a small room in the city of Danzig. It was a sort of outhouse attached to a school where her husband had been a teacher. He was dead now, and she was alone, and unable to afford the three rooms where they had lived together. All she owned was a typewriter and the contents of her head. The space into which she moved was meant only for temporary use, in the summertime. It measured 7 feet by 15 and it was furnished with a stove, a stool, a bed and a table. In this room, the young woman settled down to talk with the dead. In this third lecture, I want to tell you her strange story: how, as her commitment to the past turned to obsession, history chewed her up and spat her out. "

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


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