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Book Review

Conjuring up Cromwell

Print edition : Nov 30, 2012

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Through steadfast attachment to the idea of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel seems to be driving a fresh, 21st century exploration of its possibilities.

The year is 1535 and the month September. King Henry VIII, 24 years into his reign, is riding with falcons across an open landscape, relishing the touch of the sun after a sodden summer. England is at peace under the Tudor covenant; Henry has defied papal authority and all precedent to set aside his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon and take Anne Boleyn to wife; and the Protestant Reformation is rolling out across the land, its progress eased by the recent demise of Thomas More, the recalcitrant official whose refusal to accept Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England led to the loss of his own head, in July 1535.

Beneath the surface calm, however, are stirrings. A succession of wet summers has resulted in poor harvests, grain shortages and profiteering. The Plantagenets and other old families of England are plotting, and across the English Channel, Henry’s enemies are mustering, led by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and aggrieved nephew of the dethroned and humiliated Catherine. The new queen, disfavoured by the street (Goggle-eyed Whore is but one of many epithets doing the rounds among a sullen populace), has so far failed to give Henry a male heir.

Fine-tuned to these intimations of trouble, Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Secretary and Chief Minister, is watching the falcons swoop and soar. They are his birds, named for his dead wife and daughters, and as they drop gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze before rising to glide weightless on the high currents, bereavement and political acumen fuse in a characteristic moment of insight: They pity no one. They answer to no one. Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe.

Thus adroitly, elegantly and with masterly control, Hilary Mantel conjures us back into the world last encountered in the closing pages of Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy of novels focussed on Cromwell’s life, times, and perception of the world. That opening volume, published in 2009, triggered critical acclaim, proved popular with readers, and walked off with that year’s Man Booker Prize for what the chairman of the judges described as the sheer bigness of the book, the boldness of its narrative, its scene-setting.

Three years later, Hilary Mantel is well on course for a hat-trick. Bring up the Bodies, the second of the trilogy, recently scooped a second Man Booker Prize for the author, making her both the first British writer and the first woman to win the accolade twice.

In this middle volume of Hilary Mantel’s fictionalised biography, her subject too is in his middle years; 50 years old, with greying hair and a labourer’s body, stocky, useful, running to fat. In the opening pages, terse references, flashes of description and deft reminders reconnect us to the Cromwell of Wolf Hall. We revisit his improbable rise from an impoverished and brutal childhood; the years overseas that remain a blank in the historical record (and which Hilary Mantel wisely decided to leave blank); his closeness to Cardinal Wolsey, his one-time patron now dead at the king’s command. Mystery surrounds him; against the odds, he has survived:

“No one knows where he has been and who he has met, and he is in no hurry to tell them. He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed.”

But, as readers of Wolf Hall already know, coexisting with this shrewd, self-serving calculator is a man capable of tenderness, of seeing beauty in the world, of imparting generosity and even gentleness.

This combination of ruthlessness and charm, of skulduggery and softness, is the essence of Hilary Mantels Cromwell, an artfully achieved dialectic that infuses the narrative, drives it forward and allows it to take unexpected directions.

Contradictions abound in Cromwell’s situation in 1535. His rise has mirrored that of Anne Boleyn; as the most powerful of Henry’s ministers, he has overseen the king’s divorce and remarriage and played a key role in the English Church’s break with Rome. The execution of Thomas More (the closing section of Wolf Hall) has raised him to his highest point of influence. Now, somehow, he must negotiate a path through the tricky, shifting political terrain, one in which grand gamesmanship in the royal and papal courts of Europe is matched by the play of sexual politics. Treachery; intrigue; death: all are primed and waiting.

As we accompany Cromwell (part of Hilary Mantel’s achievement lies in his ability to act as our eyes and ears), we too begin to detect the dangers ahead. There is the truculent behaviour of the new queen, which is alienating her not only from predictable enemies. There is the matter of the old queen, ailing and under what amounts to house arrest in Cambridgeshire. Meanwhile, the dissolution of the monasteries, supervised by Cromwell, and for him justified by the resulting flow of wealth into governmental coffers, is stoking the indignation of Catholic Europe.

And then there is Jane Seymour: lady-in-waiting to both queens, old and new; demure and plain with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise. Jane’s father is the owner of Wolf Hall, the Wiltshire house in which the royal party is staying at the book’s opening, and the young woman, perhaps by virtue of the contrast she strikes with Anne’s mercurial allure, catches Henry’s fancy. Were we strangers to Tudor history, we would still grasp the significance of their walk together in the late summer gardens, as observed by Cromwell’s detecting eye:

“Something tugs at his attention. He gets up and glances from the window at the walks below. The panes are small and there is a wobble in the glass, so he has to crane his neck to get a proper view.... Henry and Jane are walking below. Henry is a massive figure and Jane is like a little jointed puppet, her head not up to the king’s shoulders.... Now Jane is behind a bush. Henry is nodding at her; he is speaking at her; he is impressing something on her, and he, Cromwell, watches, scratching his chin: is the king’s head becoming bigger? Is that possible, in mid-life?”

Telling detail

This passage offers clues not simply about the future course of events but also about Hilary Mantel’s engagement with the past, her ability to zoom in and capture the particular, the small but telling detail. The art lies in doing this accurately, unselfconsciously and without pretension, so as to entice the readers into greater intimacy with the story rather than burden them with a surfeit of period clutter mined from the archives. A profile of Hilary Mantel in The New Yorker cites the scene, later in the novel, in which Jane Seymour is handed a love letter and a bag of money that Henry has sent her. After handing back the money, she takes the letter, kisses it, and then gives it back unopened. Every detail of the sequence is recorded in an ambassador’s correspondence that Hilary Mantel consulted during research.

Hilary Mantel’s attitude to the past precludes any tampering with what is definitively known, whether dates or itineraries or the number of siblings. I cannot describe to you what revulsion it inspires in me when people play around with the facts, she told The New Yorker. If I were to distort something just to make it more convenient or dramatic, I would feel I’d failed as a writer. If you understand what you’re talking about, you should be drawing the drama out of real life, not putting it there, like icing on a cake.

This inclination to somehow let the past speak for itself reaches back to the very beginning of her career as a writer. It was 1975, and she was 23, living in Manchester, and working in a department store to make ends meet. To keep boredom at bay, she began borrowing library books about the French Revolution and making notes. It eventually dawned on her that she was doing this in order to write a book: not a history but a novel about the lives of the young revolutionaries whose fervour she found irresistible. With no training as a historian and little idea about how or when to make things up, she trusted to instinct. Anchored by the letters and diaries left to posterity, she found she had to invent things only here or there; voices seemed to echo from the musty records, prompting her to experiment with multiple narrators and play with dialogue. In the process of writing, she was intrigued to find her allegiance shifting from the charismatic Danton to the puritanical Robespierre, and wanted to persuade the reader to feel as she did.

Four years later, the completed typescript was landing on the desks of publishers and agents and being promptly returned to sender. I wrote a letter to an agent saying would you look at my book, it’s about the French Revolution, it’s not a historical romance, Hilary Mantel told The New Yorker. And the letter came back saying, we do not take historical romances. They literally could not read my letter, because of the expectations surrounding the words French Revolution that it was bound to be about ladies with high hair. It would be 1992 before A Place of Greater Safety eventually made it into print, by which time Hilary Mantel had published four other novels, all set in contemporary times or in the recent past.

Historical fiction

For much of the 20th century, the historical novel had languished in the shadows, displaced from its 19th century prominence first by modernism, then by irreverent postmodernist experiments in uncertainty and meta-fiction. Realism; narrative flow; exploration and development of character; research-based accuracy in the invocation of place and atmosphere: such attributes of historical novel writing at its best might surface in books for children (the writer Rosemary Sutcliff was a gifted mid-20th century exponent) or in works such as Marguerite Yourcenar’s majestic Memories of Hadrian, published in 1951 to immediate acclaim. For the most part, however, history seemed out of place, outmoded even, in literary fiction. Any effort in this direction could all too easily find itself tagged as historical romance or, worse still, costume drama.

Through steadfast attachment to the idea of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel now seems to be driving a fresh, 21st century exploration of its possibilities. Her readiness for this role appears to have been shaped by several factors. One is the redoubtable quality that has enabled her to survive a life of crippling pain; after scant help from doctors, she eventually self-diagnosed as endometriosis, a mysterious illness she had suffered from her late teens.

The disease played havoc with her life, rendering her infertile, disrupting her marital relationship and, when finally treated, causing her to gain weight unstoppably and at a frightening pace (she still takes medication to keep this in check). Interestingly, Rosemary Sutcliff, too, wrote her fiction whilst battling the pain of Still’s disease and spent much of her life in a wheelchair.

Hilary Mantel’s ear for language and her quasi-dramatist approach to dialogue contribute to her success in retrieving the past and making it appeal to modern readers. Her historical novels are devoid of the archaisms characteristic of the genre in its 19th century heyday; no “prithees”, “forsooths” or “thous” rumple the texture in an irritating quest for authenticity. Instead, the writing is simple, unadorned, direct. Above all, it is through her choice of protagonist that Hilary Mantel takes hold of us and never relinquishes her grip. Thomas Cromwell, more than 400 years dead, speaks to us in terms we can understand. He does so from a vantage point echoing with contemporary resonances: that of a man of humble origin who by his own wits has battled privilege to win a place in the world.

Thus far the ambitious, scheming, toxic Cromwell of the history books, a dark figure set against the luminescence of the saintly Thomas More. But as she did with Robespierre, Hilary Mantel wants to apprise us of the possibilities beyond the caricature, beyond the harsh, one-dimensional verdict.

Cromwell, she reminds us, is also a man of reform and reconstruction, a visionary of practical bent who promotes laws for poverty relief, parliamentary reform, and measures against hoarding and profiteering. A man for whom the long peace established under the Tudor covenant is to be defended at almost any cost. A driven, confident man but one still vulnerable to the taunts of social superiors who revel in his humble origins. A man in whom ruthlessness coexists with playfulness, whose devotion to affairs of the state is balanced by tenderness and sensibility to the world about him.

The irresistible complexity of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell draws us in; we identify with aspects of his situation and persona. That this is fiction we recognise. But there is something familiar about this man and his world, a plausibility that seems to dissolve barriers of strangeness and make of the past something we can comprehend.

Hilary Mantel has already found a title for the concluding part of her trilogy. The Mirror and the Light, she says, will not simply cover the last four years of Cromwell’s life (he died in 1540).

What I want to do, she said recently in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, is hold up a mirror to everything that’s gone before and shed new light on it.... What I’m trying to do is make three books that stand up independently, yet the third book will have to contain them all. There is more research to be done, and surprises lie in wait for both author and reader. But, like her single-minded protagonist, she is ready for the challenge. It will be complicated but I’m not intimidated. I think I can bring it home in style.

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