You just know when you’re reading the work of a genius.
The first two books in Dame Hilary Mantel‘s trilogy of historical novels set in the Tudor period both won the Man Booker Prize. Wolf Hall was published in April 2009. Bring Up the Bodies followed in May 2012. The final book of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, came out in March this year – it’s already been longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Having been enthralled back in 2015 by the six-part BBC TV production of Wolf Hall (which incorporated Bring Up the Bodies), I decided it was about time I went back to its source material …
Wolf Hall relates the rise of Thomas Cromwell from humble beginnings as the son of a (violent) blacksmith to becoming Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain – in other words, chief adviser and ‘fixer’ to Henry VIII. It’s quite some journey. Although told in the third person, it’s rather like an autobiography, in that we see events through Cromwell’s eyes as he becomes a vehicle, conveying a multi-dimensional picture of Tudor life and society in general and that of his own and other families – notably the royals – in particular.
We quickly pick up on Mantel’s literary device whereby the unexpected “he” pronoun almost invariably refers to Cromwell. Slightly jarring at first, this turns out to enhance the “fly-on-the-wall” effect. The quality of the descriptive prose is awe-inspiring: often it’s as though Cromwell (below) was carrying a video camera in the top pocket of his mink-lined robe. The use of the present tense adds immediacy and oftentimes dramatic effect. Whilst the author utilises established historical facts as a framework for her story, as a novelist she of course makes creative use of gaps in that record (a fascinating process which she described vividly in one of her 2017 Reith Lectures).
The idea of recounting complicated history through an imagined viewpoint of an actual historical personage throws up some intriguing philosophical questions. What is a true account of a historical event? Dates and places and documents provide the historian with a degree of certainty; but the subtleties of the event’s significance in the minds – and the lived lives – of those who were actually participating in that history, at the time, can only be guessed at. And it’s that dimension that the historical novelist inhabits and into which she leads us.
“The past is so close and yet irretrievable”, said Hilary Mantel in an edition of the BBC’s Book Club programme in October 2013. As she described it, it is so close when, say, we’re able to see and touch a dog’s footprints impressed into drying bricks laid on the floor of a real house owned by an important historical character; and yet irretrievable because we can never hear the voices or read the minds of characters whose history and fate we know only too well.
So, arguably the biggest question in all of this, which Mantel posed and answered in one of her Reith Lectures, is: “… what can historical fiction bring to the table? It doesn’t need to flatter. It can challenge and discomfit. If it’s done honestly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’, it says ‘Consider this’. It can sit alongside the work of historians – not offering an alternative truth, or even a supplementary truth, but offering insight”.
If you don’t know too much about the bloody and turbulent history of Henry VIII’s reign, this book is a real eye-opener. Thomas Cromwell has roles at every layer of society and rubs up against all the famous names in Henry’s court, such as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (above left) and Sir Thomas More (below right); he has his own family life, with its triumphs and tragedies, fitted in like an important sub-plot, but with great emotional sensitivity (I’ll avoid spoilers); and, as the history unfolds, his remit expands to take in the unpredictable king’s dealings with feisty English earls, corrupt and/or fanatical religious movers and shakers, potential wives and their scheming families, educational gurus, the intricate but questionable legal and diplomatic systems of Britain and Europe and, significantly, the growing influence of a nascent publishing industry. The often barbaric physical punishments meted out to offenders are described, sometimes in lurid detail; but, more to the point, Mantel forces us to think about the psychological repercussions on those navigating this dangerous landscape, and those fearing or actually facing execution. All this is set at the top of a society controlled by the massive levers of religious and regnal power.
Many of the dramatis personæ walk a tightrope between furthering their own interests and attracting the wrath or disapprobation of figures in positions of greater power, sometimes with horrifyingly fatal consequences. But of course they don’t always know what they are getting into. Mantel’s characters, including Cromwell, have human frailties. They don’t necessarily foresee the consequences of their actions and can attract big trouble merely by (for instance) uttering an unguarded remark, wearing the wrong garb, accidentally criticising the king or by being seen in the company of the wrong person. Personal relationships, motivations, hopes, fears, treachery, ambition, tenderness, God and the law … it’s all here. This is history in the making.
Having said that, Mantel underlines the truth that many people went to their deaths because they refused to deny their deeply-held religious beliefs. Whilst there was much schmoozing, posturing and politicking, religion and the promise of an afterlife held many minds in a vice-like grip, strong enough to withstand even the threat of torture or death by beheading or burning.
This is highly immersive stuff. Even though you, the reader, may know the fate of all the main characters, you still find yourself thinking, “Ah, that should help his case”, or “Oh dear, I don’t think she realises what Henry will think about that!” I must admit, I was often lulled into forgetting what we all know about the ultimate fates of people such as Anne Boleyn (left). At one point I even found myself thinking, “Oh my god, we’re going to meet Hans Holbein!”
If it sounds complex, it is. But it’s not difficult to follow, even though there are eleven Thomases, six Johns, seven Henrys, four Annes (including Anne Boleyn, of course) and four Marys! The five page, informative Cast of Characters and family trees at the front of the book are invaluable and referring to them is part of the fun. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the work is the way Mantel has such a great facility in being able to keep the story moving coherently on so many planes, working with all these characters, right from the lower ranks to the upper echelons. Moves on Mantel’s dazzling 3D chessboard of international politics are made by power players from France, the Low Countries, Spain and Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon (right), not to mention Wolsey’s (and ultimately Cromwell’s) battles with the Pope and the Church of Rome.
It’s interesting that Hilary Mantel studied law. She started as an undergraduate at the LSE, before transferring to the University of Sheffield and graduating as Bachelor of Jurisprudence in 1973. The novel is shot through with references to law, legal proceedings and the tracking down and clever use of evidence. Mantel portrays Cromwell’s rise to eminence as owing everything to his level-headed ability to deal with the practicalities of the capricious Henry’s finances, with all the knotty legal problems that attached thereto. Mantel takes all these matters in her stride, most notably the legalities around the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine and the subsequent break with Rome (though this first element of the trilogy doesn’t quite reach to the dissolution of the monasteries).
These are very substantial books. Wolf Hall is 650 pages long; Bring Up The Bodies (which I’m reading currently) runs to 484 pages; and The Mirror and the Light is a hefty 875 pages. That’s a total of a cool 2,009 pages. For me, they represent the fusing of professorial historical scholarship with a story-telling skillset that is probably unparalleled in the modern age.
“The novelist doesn’t spoil history for others”, adds Hilary Mantel in her Reith lecture. “She doesn’t trash her sources once she’s used them. The archive remains secure. The palaces and battlefields remain as if she had never passed through. Others can visit them, taking their own sensibility. She offers a version of the past. There can be others, and there will be. The novelist owns up to invention”.
Yes, there have been many other versions – in literature, online and on TV. But I find it impossible to imagine a more readable, gripping, thorough and convincing account of this segment of the Tudor period.
It could not have been better done.
Picture credits (all public domain)
Portrait – Thomas Cromwell: Thomas Cromwell, 1532–1533, Hans Holbein the Younger
Portrait – Thomas Wolsey: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530), Royal Minister, Archbishop of York, unknown painter
Portrait – Sir Thomas More: Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein (1497/1498–1543)
Portrait – Anne Boleyn: Anne Boleyn, late 16th-century copy of a lost original of c.1533–1536
Portrait – Katherine of Aragon: Catherine of Aragon, artist unknown, 18th century copy of a lost original work
Portrait – Henry VIII: Henry VIII of England, after Hans Holbein (1497/1498–1543); after 1537; cropped version of the full portrait, showing the “jags” (ie cuts) in the body and sleeves of the doublet, through which “puffs” of the shirt have been pulled through.