When it comes to fiction there are two things I tend to avoid: historical novels and almost anything on the Man-Booker list.
I have read some good historical novels, and I'm thinking specifically of Robert Graves' Claudius
books as well as his Belisarius
, and Marguerite Yourcenar's Mémoires d'Hadrien
. But most work in this genre I find tiresome and implausible.
I avoid the Man-Booker list because it is surrounded by so much publishing hype, like a literary beauty contest. I'm being impish disingenuous, of course, because I have read some of the past entrants and winners, and was often less than favourably impressed. Remains of the Day
is a good film based on a weak novel. And as for How Late It was, How Late
, well, there are tiny fragments of understandable dialogue between the effing and blinding. :-))
But Hilary Mantel, this year's winner, is something different. I bought Wolf Hall
, her Tudor epic, because this whole period is, after the Stuarts, my favourite phase in English history, and because I admire her as a writer. I read Eight Months in Ghazzah Street
, one of her early novels, when I was still at school, and was captivated by her style and by the theme. It's based on her experience of living for a time in Saudi Arabia. If one is interested in discovering what it is like for a westerner, a western woman, to live in this mysterious, intimidating and corrupt environment, full of unspoken threat, one could have no better guide than this intense and thrilling book. There are certain cultures that will never meld.
itself is essentially about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, one of the great 'villains' of English history, Henry VIII's bully boy and fixer. But Cromwell, for all his faults was a fascinating man, as able as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, and a far better political strategist than both, a pragmatist and a realist in the truest Machiavellian sense.
Mantel has done an excellent job in 'humanising' the monster, who rose from very humble-and brutal-origins to become for a brief period the leading politician of the time. Her novel, as one reviewer expressed it, is a long overdue response to Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons
, with More as a saint and Cromwell as a devil. In truth, not in fiction, More was a single-minded, authoritarian bigot. His was not a time for ordinary people to express unorthodox views, no matter how mild. It's always best to be mindful that those who write about Utopia quite often turn real life into hell.
It's not all about high politics; there is low drama a-plenty. The author fleshes out the bones of history to recreate a convincing picture of English life in the sixteenth century. It's beautifully written, with lots of highly insightful character portraits, and acute flashes of plausible realism. People, locations, actions, events all tumble together in a huge and entertaining panorama.
The novel unfolds around a story that everyone knows, even those who have never read a word of Tudor history: Henry is married to Catherine of Aragon; Henry does not want to be married to Catherine of Aragon. On this simple desire careers were made and careers ruined. Wolsey fails; More resists; Cromwell emerges. This is a period when England was to undergo a profound transformation, though that was far from being the King's intention. New fashions, new attitudes will be built on the ruins of the old. Cromwell was the man for the age, a man for his season.