(Hans Holbein, Jane Seymour, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Reading of a world nearly five hundred years back in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, you still trip over occasional reminders of the current one: Henry VIII’s new queen, Jane Seymour, has not yet been crowned and the king has talked of a midsummer ceremony. ‘But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.’ Even so, ‘The Seymours, of course, urge the king to take the risk.’
Nearly five hundred pages into Mantel’s novel, the name of Thomas Culpeper first occurs: ‘A young man’, ‘The young fellow’. This Culpeper—and the historical one, his age, appearance, character, the stage at which he first encountered Catherine (or Katharine) Howard—who sashays in a little later—sits a little askew with a recent reading of Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy.
There, Culpeper—spelt ‘Culpepper’—is introduced early, in conversation between Nicholas Udal and one of the King’s guards and is seen shortly afterwards, leading the mule on which Katharine Howard rides. This Culpeper is cousin to Katharine, rich, aggressive, a braggart, a roaring, swaggering, drunken fellow.
In the first place, I often need to remind myself just how young some of these people were. Culpeper was around twenty-seven when he was executed at Tyburn; Catherine Howard, her birthdate also a little uncertain, was in her late teens, probably eighteen, when she was put to death. Christina of Denmark, subject of Holbein’s marvellous portrait, was widowed at the age of thirteen and was still only sixteen when Henry VIII, after the death of Jane Seymour, tried to secure Christina in marriage.
(Hans Holbein, Christina of Denmark, National Portrait Gallery)
In the second place, wonderfully irresolvable, those relations between history and fiction. Noting that Henry James ‘claims for the novelist the standing of the historian’, Joseph Conrad writes of his belief that ‘the claim cannot be contested, and that the position is unassailable. Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observations of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting—on second-hand impressions. Thus fiction is nearer truth [ . . . ] A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.’
I was reminded of this by Seamus O’Malley’s discussion of it in his excellent Making History New. He adds that Conrad ‘here desires to defend fiction by comparing it with history, first equating the two, then drawing them apart, then finally bringing them back together’. 
In a collection published in 1922, year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, the philosopher George Santayana wrote of ‘those more studious daylight fictions which we call history or philosophy’. Writing more recently of – again – Joseph Conrad, Maya Jasanoff remarked that: ‘Historians don’t go where sources don’t lead, which means they usually stop at the door to somebody’s mind. Even when diaries or letters seem to “tell all,” historians typically treat what happened as one thing, and what somebody made of it as another. Novelists walk right in and roam freely through a person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. What happened is what you make of it. That, Conrad argued, could make fiction the truer record of human experience.’ And it is not only novelists who ‘walk right in’, as Laura Cummings observes, writing that ‘paintings are fictions, and self-portraits too; there is not a novelist alive who does not believe it possible to enter the mind and voice of someone else, real or imaginary, and the same is true of painters.’
(Joseph Conrad via The New Statesman)
I doubt whether there’s wholesale agreement about what ‘fiction’ is – or, perhaps more pertinently, what it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t always stay within its supposed boundaries. In the 1995 ‘Introduction’ to a reissue of his novel Crash, J. G. Ballard wrote: ‘We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind — mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.’ Twenty-five years on and such fictions have become more widespread, more insidious, more inseparable from, and indistinguishable in, the fabric of the nation, this nation, all nations.
‘Unlike history,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote, ‘fiction can proceed with confidence.’ It can – but often it doesn’t. Innumerable writers have seized on the battlefield aspects of their art, entering the field always on the qui vive, the poem as a field of action, entering enemy territory, looking for cover. Yet the writer, if not in control, has some measure of control, and perhaps the loss of that is sometimes, often, the writer’s choice. Life is not, Penelope Lively observes, like fiction in that ‘[t]here is no shrewd navigator, just a person’s own haphazard lurching from one decision to another. Which is why life so often seems to lack the authenticity of fiction.’
‘But there is’, William Maxwell wrote, ‘always a kind of truth in those fictions which people create in order to describe something too complicated and too subtle to fit into any conventional pattern.’ In Ezra Pound’s ‘Near Perigord’, faced with conflicting evidence and the warring interpretations of Bertrans de Born’s motives and priorities in the canzone he wrote for Maent of Montaignac (‘Is it a love poem? Did he sing of war?’), the Poundian voice counsels: ‘End fact, try fiction.’ And he does:
Let us say we see
En Bertrans, a tower room at Hautefort,
Sunset, the ribbon-like road lies, in cross-light,
South towards Montaignac, and he bends at a table
Scribbling, swearing between his teeth; by his left hand
Lie little strips of parchment covered over,
Scratched and erased with al and ochaisos.
testing his list of rhymes, a lean man. Bilious?
With a red straggling beard?
And the green cat’s eye lifts towards Montaignac.
The poem ends, though, with Bertrans’ own voice, perhaps ‘designed’, as David Moody writes, ‘to show how the dramatic monologue outdoes both “fact” and “fiction”.’ As with any first-person narrator, the speaker of the dramatic monologue encloses the reader or listener. There is no outside information to help us with the gauging of truthfulness or reliability. We can only look for clues, slippages, gaps and contradictions – and perhaps assume that the narrator is always claiming, for himself or herself, the benefit of the doubt.
 Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light (London: Fourth Estate, 2020), 192, 486.
 Ford Madox Ford, The Fifth Queen (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 23-24, 36ff.
 Joseph Conrad, ‘Henry James’, Notes on Life and Letters (London: j. M. Dent, 1921), 20-21.
 Seamus O’Malley, Making History New: Modernism and Historical Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 24.
 George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies ( Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), 1.
 Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 10-11.
 Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 93.
 J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973; London: Fourth Estate, 2011).
 Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Why I Write’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 508.
 Penelope Lively, Making It Up (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2006), 136.
 William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It (1948; in Early Novels and Stories, New York: Library of America, 2008), 771.
 ‘Near Perigord’, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 302-308.
 A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume I: The Young Genius 1885–1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 306.