By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Notes & Comments

Hilary Mantel and the Historical Novel

Remembering the author who reinvigorated the historical novel.

David K. Anderson

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s 2015 adaptation of Wolf Hall, photo: Giles Leyte; 17th century copy of Cromwell Bill of Attainder, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale.

“Arrange your face,” the great sixteenth-century humanist Erasmus advises Thomas Cromwell, as the latter makes his way into Henry VIII’s inner circle. The paunchy, unlovely, low-born Cromwell hardly needs the counsel. Remembered, if at all, as a cold-blooded political fixer who lined his pockets while managing the vanities and appetites of a tyrant, he was an unlikely candidate for a brilliant recasting as the sympathetic protagonist in a trilogy of historical novels spanning nearly two thousand pages. But that is what Dame Hilary Mantel left us when she died, at age seventy, last September, the greatest achievement in a long and varied career that saw the publication of more than a dozen best-selling and prize-winning books as well as many occasional pieces. Almost as unlikely was how decisively Mantel’s Cromwell novels would shatter certain long-held literary dogmas.

For a century or more, the historical novel suffered from tastemakers’ scant regard even as it enjoyed the robust affection of the reading public. In a 1974 study of American historical fiction, Harry B. Henderson explained that the genre is subject to the charge of “impurity” because, mingling fact with fancy, it stands to affront both the historically minded reader, who winces at every liberty taken with the record, and the literary, bored by descriptions of siege entrenchments or brocaded silk. Furthermore, Henderson wrote, the historical novel’s unforgivable popularity earns it the accusation of “vulgarity,” as though any story set prior to the Nixon administration would have to be a potboiler.

More incisive still is the condemnation by Henry James, who warned a fellow writer against the “fatal cheapness” of such endeavors, explaining, “You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do…I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness…the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent” (emphasis in original). Such books, the argument runs, are bound to fail in making good their central promise of capturing a historical figure’s subjectivity, because the writer cannot reincarnate herself as a denizen of an earlier century but can only portray moderns awkwardly costumed in togas or knee breeches.

Since James wrote that letter, in 1901, any number of novels have been published that bear out his pronouncement. But there have been exceptions, and Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy is among the most extraordinary, having won the prestigious Booker Prize for the first two entries in the sequence and registering sales figures most Booker winners can only dream of.

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