Hilary Mantel has become the first woman to win two Booker prizes — for her novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (the first two parts of a trilogy about Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell). Cathy Nugent reviews the books.
Historical novelists have used the form to discuss contemporary ideas and issues. And the practice has become very popular in recent historical novels.
Sarah Walters has written about how sexual politics and mores were loosened and transformed in the 1890s (Tipping the Velvet) and during the Second World War (The Night Watch). A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book also mines the 1890s — for ideas about middle-class social conscience.
There is none of that in either of Mantel’s Cromwell novels. She is more focussed on recreating the Tudor world and world view. Here is the body politic of the 1530s. It is not what the body politic of the 1530s can tell us about the 2010s. But then the shallow PR world of modern politics is nothing to take seriously. That’s material for In the Thick of It, not books which discuss the Divine Right of Kings or the decline of chivalry.
Mantel’s fictional world is so perfectly imagined it induced a bit of nausea and fear in me. But don’t let me put you off. Mantel puts her reader into a time machine, straps her in, and takes her on a thrilling ride.
Vicious intrigue among the babyish narcissistic aristocrats at Henry’s court drives the action. The constant threat of death by untreatable disease or beheading (or worse) infects the story. International political alliances, religion (Henry’s split from the Pope) and business (the growth of trade) are fused together in this story, presided over by Henry and facilitated by his Mr Fixit, Thomas Cromwell.
Mantel’s Cromwell is not the real Cromwell. No one really knows who he was because there are not enough records, or the right kind of records, to tell us that. Mantel’s Cromwell is rational, ambitious, even-handed... sympathetic even. Yet this is man who, with his control of information, the wealth to lend and call in loans, and powerful influence over Henry’s law-making, was responsible for ruining lives and taking lives.
But as the story is told from Cromwell’s point of view Mantel is obliged to give us a balanced, subtle character. We also see his self-delusion. Cromwell longs to be, believes himself to be, part of the establishment. Yet, as the son of a blacksmith, in this time, he will always remain an outsider.
And what happens to outsiders – as much as it does to uppity queens like Anne Boleyn or impudent Dukes? They get their heads chopped off. Cromwell is in the end not spared Henry’s axe.
Too simplistic perhaps to see the fictional Cromwell as a stand-in for a nascent bourgeoisie. Nonetheless it is clear in the novel that the time is up for the aristocratic fools who cling on to the old ways — popery, the expectation that their estates will always provide them with a life of idleness. As Cromwell dispatches them to the Tower is he not doing historical progress in England a service?
Many TV series, bodice-ripper novels and lavish films have been made about the Tudors. The houses, customs and heredity of the period are popular in primary schools. The Tudors are intrinsically gory, and are a safe reminder of our own mortality. But Mantel’s retelling of the Tudor story is deeper, more interesting and more poetic.