A book review of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
What sane person would want to write historical fiction?
Consider the challenges. You have to create a realistic, immersive sense of the past that requires you to know the period down to its hemlines, chariot wheels, and cooking technology, but you have to hide most of your research so that your story isn’t buried under historical details. It’s not a textbook. You have to know your intellectual history as well, so that your characters don’t think thoughts that people couldn’t have before Copernicus, or Darwin, or Betty Friedan, but you also have to make these strange people with their archaic paradigms relatable to your modern readers.
And of course, like the author of any novel, you have to create story worth reading, with characters worth knowing, in language worth savoring for which, you can only hope, an eager book-buying public awaits.
But even if you have done all these things well, you will still suffer the indignity of being lumped together, both on bookstore shelves and in the minds of certain readers and critics, with the authors of bodice-ripping Regency romances about what happened when the Bennett sisters’ third cousin’s neighbor went up from Bath to London during the season to catch herself a wealthy husband, probably a rakish earl. In some quarters of the literary universe, historical fiction is pulp, like science fiction and romance, until proven otherwise.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize in 2009, and its recent sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, dare you to mistake them for pulp and double the dare by featuring a period and a cast of characters exhaustively mined by generations of hacks: The court of Henry VIII. With all the adultery, intrigue, divorce, beheadings, disembowelments and family feuds among Henry’s set, it’s almost impossible not to write potboilers about them.
Mantel cools the temperature by making the cerebral Thomas Cromwell her main character. Not to be confused with his great-great-great nephew, the infamous Oliver Cromwell, Thomas is an advisor to Henry VIII whose influence over the king increases gradually over the course of the two books. He is a strategist whose role is to help Henry get exactly what he wants while still maintaining Henry’s sense of himself as righteous and good-hearted. Cromwell schemes, calls in favors, plays one vain, self-interested aristocrat and family off another, and covers his own hands in blood so that Henry can believe that his own are clean. He studies and applies power with the acumen of a scientist and the dangerous black art of a sorcerer.
Cromwell is a self-made man in a world of inherited wealth and titles. Born the son of a violent, cruel blacksmith, he runs away and travels all over the continent, working as a mercenary, learning several businesses, and picking up several languages. He also befriends some early Protestants, whose views he comes to share. Mantel reveals Cromwell’s past in short flashbacks, usually to illustrate how he gained the knowledge that lets him triumph in a particular scene. By the time we meet him, Cromwell has become a brilliant businessman and politician who has acquired a fortune through his expertise in a startling range of subjects. The king is the only member of the court who doesn’t mind Cromwell’s humble origins, but the dukes and earls whose fate Cromwell manipulates for Henry’s advantage feel outraged by the lowly birth of the man who outmaneuvers them. Cromwell bows his head, addresses them respectfully by their titles, and does exactly as he sees fit.
Privately, Cromwell is a creature of the heart who loves his wife and children, adopts a nephew and another boy, whom he raises along with his own son and mentors in the business of statecraft. He is sentimental about Christmas, generous to the poor, and kind to women and children. He loves and mourns Cardinal Wolsey, his mentor and surrogate father, in whose downfall Cromwell had no choice but to participate. Wolsey’s memory stalks him through every chapter and, when the time is ripe, inspires him to the act of vengeance, perfectly disguised as politics and criminal justice, that concludes Bring Up the Bodies.
Mantel’s language is spare to the point of poetry at times. Her sentences are short and simply structured, as if balancing the elaborate plots at court and machinations of her main character. She solves the problem of the difference between modern and sixteenth century English by giving her characters language that is neither archaic nor thoroughly modern, stripped of idiom, formal, but without the taint of ye olde English. When an adversary asks Cromwell if he wonders why so many people want to kill him, he laughs and answers, “Why, Stephen–much in this life is a mystery but that is no mystery at all. I was always first up in the morning. I was always the last man standing. I was always in the money. I always got the girl. Show me a heap, and I’m on top of it.” You wouldn’t mistake it for dialogue from “Jersey Shore”, but it isn’t the usual quaint fustian, either. The language makes these characters almost our contemporaries. If we were under any delusions that the past was a simpler time, people more honest, politics gentler, morality more refined, Mantel is pleased to disillusion us. Our ancestors were exactly like us.
Wolf Hall, the first book, was difficult to follow sometimes because of problems with attribution. Cromwell is a third-person limited narrator (although the story takes place so seamlessly within his own head that at times, the reader can forget it isn’t first-person), but Mantel’s practice of using “he said” only to refer to Cromwell’s dialogue, with attributions for other characters, was not entirely clear. In Bring Up the Bodies, she seems to have taken that widely-noted criticism to heart and made the dialogue easier to follow. Mantel trusts in the intelligence of the reader. She provides a lengthy cast of characters at the beginning of each book, but does not repeat herself, and if the reader misses some crucial detail of the many plots and subplots, re-reading is the only solution. She expects you to keep up with her while she travels quickly through deep waters.
The final novel of the Wolf Hall trilogy will be called The Mirror and the Light, and will continue the story through Cromwell’s death in 1540. And there she goes again, laughing, daring you to mistake her historical fiction for trash: What serious, Booker Prize-winning author of smart, serious literary fiction writes a trilogy? The very idea!
I await it with as much breathlessness as any sci-fi fan.
Julie Goldberg blogs at Perfect Whole. She is working on her first novel.