Mantel’s revolution in historical fiction
Hilary Mantel cements her reputation as novelistic innovator with Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel every bit as seditiously potent as Wolf Hall.
Few writers are able to break away from genre fiction and be taken seriously as literary authors; this, astoundingly, is what Hilary Mantel has done for historical fiction. Bring Up the Bodies follows the lauded Wolf Hall as the second novel in a trilogy concerning Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s ruthless and gifted right-hand man. The genius of Mantel’s storytelling is that she takes the shop-worn tale of that fat, lecherous king, and renders it every bit as suspenseful as it must have been for the cringing courtiers of the sixteenth century.
Wolf Hall deservedly won the Man Booker Prize for its assiduously crafted and tense narrative, chronicling the inexorable rise of a blacksmith’s son, Thomas Cromwell. Ordinarily the bête noir of English history, Cromwell, destroyer of monasteries and scourge of so-called queens, is for once represented in a sympathetic light. Far from sticking to received opinion or merely glossing up staid history with punchy dialogue (as writers of historical fiction are wont to do), Mantel courts fact and fancy in equal measure, so that we are not sure what counts as historical tidbit and what does not.
Through her limpid prose, we come to admire the self-serving and ambitious Cromwell; his character resonates with the individualistic ethos of late capitalism. These same characteristics, of course, make him a hated figure of indecorous social climbing to the aristocracy, and we begin to suspect the source of his venomous social record: jealousy. Mantel’s approach to historical fiction is thus revolutionary: she neither toes the school textbook line, nor does she verge towards the implausible. Rather, she manipulates the historical record for her own novelistic purposes and casts historical characters in a fresh light, as a true historian should.
Mantel continues to break convention in Bring Up the Bodies, but instead of the Bildungsroman of the first part of the trilogy, we find ourselves involved with a fully established career politician, at the centre of court intrigues and affairs of state. Nerdy as a novel about Tudor high politics might sound, it assuredly is not. As a reader, you are intimately tangled in the web of Henry VIII’s court and, almost like the best soap operas, you find yourself identifying with characters as your own personal friends and allies, or indeed enemies. The course of the narrative is, admittedly, less frenetic than in the previous novel, with a slight slump in the middle section. This, however, must be deliberate; a deceptive lull before the sudden and climactic decapitation of Anne Boleyn.
For a book whose ending is known to all but the most uninformed readers, it curiously avoids fatalism. There is a sense, up until the very end, that any eventuality is possible. Fuelling this detachment from the historical situation is Mantel’s use of the present tense. Her prose is unique: every moment occurs in real time so that the reader is swept up into the drama of events; deviations from the plot segue seamlessly and dreamlike, creating the disturbing impression that you are Thomas Cromwell; you completely inhabit his reality. Bring Up the Bodies is the kind of book where you find yourself turning back a few pages to figure out what exactly you have just read. This is not to say it is unreadable, but that you are so in thrall to the plot you forget you are reading.
Admirable also, is the careful diction used in dialogue. It neither slips into the mangled antique English that gives us ‘Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe’, nor does it compromise and have the characters employ countless Americanisms. Instead, Mantel crafts a style for her character’s speech that appears wholly authentic to the period. No two of her sentences are the same; never could you say, ‘this is a sentence of Mantel’s’. And it is this that lends the novel its protean and exciting verve. Complex and nuanced works that are highly readable and engaging are rare beasts indeed.
Forgetting the strength of the prose, the most powerful and disturbing feature of Bring Up the Bodies is the almost imperceptible way in which Anne Boleyn is undermined by Thomas Cromwell and his cabal. Never are the allegations of incest and infidelity confirmed, yet somehow they are worked into fact: ‘Truth can break gates down, truth can howl in the streets; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.’
So the twisted logic of Cromwell’s brinkmanship is revealed. It requires careful thought and reading to realise that the man you are following through the narrative is pathological, as is the society in which he lives. Human life, everything, is expendable in the face of the whims of the all-powerful monarch. His enforcer, Cromwell, spitefully engineers the deaths of his enemies as well as furthering the king’s aims. This realisation is somehow whisked away from under our feet, hidden behind the double meanings of Mantel’s ingenious sentences.
Bring Up the Bodies is a truly poignant novel, the conceit is that we are drawn along, unaware of both the poignancy and the nature of the characters, until we come to the end of the final page.
Emmet Livingstone is an intern at spiked.
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