Wednesday 15 January 2020

What's so great about Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell? - by Rowena House

Ahead of the publication of the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s double Booker prize-winning Tudor trilogy – The Mirror & the Light, due out in March – I’ve been re-reading the first two books of the series: Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

These are two of my favourite historical novels, so I’ve been reading them both for pleasure and also as a writer, trying to pin-point exactly why they transport me to a world I don’t want to leave. 

The protagonist’s character is unquestionably one reason. Thomas Cromwell is plausible, nuanced, thoughtful, decisive: a modern man yet still of his time.

Personally, I’m happy to buy into Mantel’s version of Crowwell, a blacksmith’s son who rises to become a power-broker in the court of King Henry VIII, regardless of objections from some historians about the accuracy of her account.

As Mantel says in her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures, her job as a fiction writer is to resurrect the dead, to recreate them as living, breathing, rounded people. Just like any historian, she fills in the gaps in the written record with intelligent speculation – and then adds imagination.

Mantel’s writing enchants me too. She breaks rules that some of my favourite writing gurus insist are sacrosanct (at times, it’s unclear whether it is Cromwell who’s speaking) and her flashbacks are complex and layered. 

She tells (rather than shows) a lot. Her prose are beautiful, pithy, witty, with surprising psychological insights delivered with swift assurance. Her grammar at times feels unique; I’d love to hear her take down Michael Gove, with his absolutist approach to ‘correct’ school English.

Thanks to the depth of her telling, the slowly unfolding plot remains absorbing without any requirement for suspense, of which there can be none, really, since its main events  are part of the fabric of British culture: Henry’s manoeuvring to rid himself of his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, followed by the catastrophic fall from grace of his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

As historical novelist Vanora Bennett put it in her 2009 review of Wolf Hall for The Times, it is the originality of Cromwell’s perspective which, in Mantel’s expert hands, “makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago look new again, and shocking again, too.”

For all its religious and political ramifications, the drama is essentially intimate: marriage is marriage, even when it is also dynastic. I think this, perhaps, is the key to the story’s success for me as a reader.

On every page, I feel as if I’m eavesdropping on the powerful dead, alive again in their own domestic spaces. I’m seeing their failings and hurts, their successes and excesses, through the eyes of a man who is at once sympathetic to the human condition and also in control of destinies.

On re-reading these tales, I’ve also been struck how respectful Mantel’s Cromwell is of women — be they his wife, sister or daughter, or abandoned Queen Katherine, still fighting her corner, or used Mary Boleyn or ambitious Anne or quietly observant Jane Seymour. He recognises their intelligence, their battles to gain agency in a man’s world, without relinquishing one iota of his own calculating masculinity and ruthless ambition.

For Christmas, I was given the dedicated ‘credit’ card the publishers and booksellers have issued for The Mirror and the Light. As soon as it’s out, I’ll be buying a hard back edition as I’m sure I’ll read it again and again for inspiration and delight.

Happy reading, everyone. I’d love to hear your views on Mantel or any other author who’s drawn you back into their worlds time and again. 

Twitter: @houserowena
Facebook: Rowena House Author


Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for reminding me that the new Mantel novel will be out in March. What a treat to look forward to. Maybe I can pre-order it through my local library?

Though others may not be lucky enough to have thriving libraries near them.

Hmmm. The damage from a different kind of cut to the blades and blows imposed on His Majesty's poor wives?

Susan Price said...

I agree, Penny. March, eh? Got to get that book.

Rowena House said...

She was talking about The Mirror and the Light during the 2017 Reith Lectures, which I've been listening to again recently as well. I think it might have a different tone to Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, but I'm sure it will be fantastic. Would love to hear your thoughts,Penny & Susan, when we've all devoured it!

Andrew Preston said...

Scarlett Johansson ( Mary Boleyn ) to Eric Bana ( Henry VIII ),
overheard during a break in filming of  'The Other Boleyn Girl'.
" Can I rest my coffee on your codpiece... ?".

LuWrites said...

Ashamed to say I haven't read either of the first two novels - maybe time to get in there quick before the third one comes out!