Hilary Mantel is one of my greatest inspirations. She is an extraordinarily versatile novelist who has written many contemporary novels as well as her Booker winners, including Beyond Black, the story of a medium which presents the spirit world in forensic detail. This is one of my Desert Island books. (My rationale being that if I were sent to a desert island, I would take eight books and one record.)
I have now read both Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and there is no doubt that Mantel deserved her double Booker. Not only does she create a plausible, tangible sixteenth century reality, and populate it with characters who are credible both as Early Modern humans and people we can understand, she raises the game for all writers of historical fiction. The question of what is factual and what is imaginary, what is invented for the benefit of modern readers and what is ‘authentic’ is one which we all need to address. We might not find an answer to it, but we can only write with fluency and authority if we know enough to imagine with confidence. And Mantel meets this challenge with magisterial brilliance. Speaking at the Novel Approaches to History conference at the Institute of Historical Research in November 2011, Mantel commented:
What happens in most historical fiction is – the author dresses up twenty-first century figures in the costume of the period. Conventional historical fiction – offers moral teaching about the lives of women. I did not want a cocked or disguised way of writing about the present. The past has a value in itself. Fact and fiction are not two neat categories. If I were to distinguish fact from fiction in Wolf Hall, I would have to footnote every line.
Mantel is interested in the aspects of the past that historians cannot access. This is what she calls ‘the activated Power of Rumour’ and this is where an author’s imagination can operate, free of accusations of inaccuracy.
She argues: ‘I can operate in this “off the record” area. So much of what we have now – pageantry, painting, gift giving culture – is what is demonstrated or shown. I am more interested in what is going on on the back stairs, what is said behind the hand. I might be able to make my readers feel what it was like to live through those terrifying days. I will walk you forward with the characters who don’t know the end of the road.’
Wolf Hall shows Thomas Cromwell’s vulnerability – his wife and daughters die suddenly of the sweating sickness. At the start of Bring up the Bodies, we learn that he has given his daughters’ names to his falcons. He sees them plummet from the sky to kill their prey. (The opening sentence is: ‘His children are falling from the sky.’ I would challenge anyone to stop reading after that.) Cromwell trusts his instincts more readily than his fellow man. At Henry’s request, he schemes against Anne Boleyn without knowing what the outcome will be. (Henry, becoming toddler-like in his bulky infirmity, is trammeled by his own power.) Cromwell must act to end the marriage he worked so hard to broker. His is a ruthless but inexact science.
His view is partial, sometimes confused; his surroundings are shadowed and obfuscated. He is Master Secretary – he can do anything in the service of the King, even arrange for the removal of inconvenient wives. But the removal of Anne is messy. Witnesses may be lying. The accused may have confessed because they were tortured. His own position is insecure, just as Anne’s is insecure, and her downfall may bring about his end. (If Anne Boleyn wasn’t safe from Cromwell, the courtier Wriothesley asks, how does the King know he can trust him?)
The reader is similarly unsure and half-informed, caught between light and darkness. I tried to describe Mantel’s style to someone recently, and talked about seeing her characters though mullions of dark coloured glass, vividly but incompletely. So I was pleased to find almost this same image towards the end of Bring up the Bodies: ‘Perhaps, caught in the little panes which distort and cloud, Wriothesley sees a dubious image: confusion, fear, emotions that do not often mark Master Secretary’s face…’
In the third volume of the trilogy, we will find out that things end badly for Cromwell. This is not a spoiler, as history has already done this job for me. The point is not what happens, but how. And in Mantel’s ‘off the record’ area, the ‘how’ can be imagined with truthful clarity.