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.

Mantel’s long career was by no means exclusively focused on the past: Her oeuvre includes black comedies, neogothic narratives, and (in the Freudian sense) family romances. However, the Cromwell books—Wolf Hall (2009), Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020)—will continue to be read long after a novel set during the COVID lockdowns or the Ukrainian war comes to be dubbed “historical.” The accomplishment hinges, in part, on the choice of an utterly unlikely protagonist. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s unglamorous but stunningly capable chief minister, is one of English history’s great enigmas, as inscrutable as he was consequential. Mantel relishes Cromwell’s opacity—“arrange your face” is indeed one of the maxims he lives by—even as she constructs a fine-grained and impressively plausible portrait of the man’s interior life.

The early decades of Mantel’s own life, about which she wrote extensively, taught her much about the distance between inner and outer self—and about how raw truths, vulnerability, and anger can be hidden from the watching world, even as they can sometimes goad the sufferer toward greatness. No child wants to see her father displaced by another man; how much worse when the father lives meekly in the same house with his usurper for years, before he finally decides to depart, never to be seen again? Then Mantel’s twenties and thirties were spent in a debilitating battle with endometriosis, a condition she initially had to diagnose on her own and which, she wrote in later years, is only half-understood by doctors and almost impossible to explain to friends and relatives. She passed nearly a decade of that time living abroad with her husband, first in Botswana and then in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that while living in Jeddah, the Saudi kingdom’s second city, where the outer life of women is so sharply circumscribed, Mantel became a published author. She found little in Jeddah to love, but the experience, fictionalized in her third novel and discussed in various opinion pieces, developed her eye for worlds not her own, teaching her to pay studied attention to the unfamiliar life that swirled around her and, crucially, to what that manner of life provoked within herself. When applied to the scarcely less foreign world of the sixteenth century, this capacity for describing private impressions, responses, and judgments yielded formidable returns.

We can see this in the Cromwell books’ treatment of religion, which defined the world of the early sixteenth century, as the Reformation shook the Western church to its foundations. Mantel repudiated the Roman Catholicism of her upbringing with considerable vehemence. This rejection is plain enough in the novels’ reversal of playwright Robert Bolt’s verdict in the hagiographic A Man for All Seasons: She reminds us that Thomas More was a heretic hunter as well as a martyr and depicts Cromwell, whom Bolt had villainized, as a man striving to balance pragmatism with humanity.

For all that, Mantel’s Cromwell is a radical who wants to sweep away the cobwebs and “make a new England”—a country that prospers, functions smoothly, and learns to ignore bloodlines and shibboleths. In her first-written and fifth-published novel, A Place of Greater Safety, she lovingly interweaves the stories of Danton, Desmoulins, and Robespierre, three of the French Revolution’s most memorable leader-victims. However, Mantel needed no one to remind her that those men lived a quarter millennium nearer our day than Thomas Cromwell, who had read Machiavelli but not Locke or Rousseau and whose politics sprang not just from anger at the status quo but from a quiet but thoroughgoing evangelicalism in the spirit of Bible translator William Tyndale.

Though she did not share this piety and was always alive to the dark side of Cromwell’s nature, Mantel captured it with impressive clarity. We hear of his morning prayers and overhear prayers he extemporizes. He loves the Bible and, after speaking to a serving woman, laments privately, in the mode of the Reformation martyr Hugh Latimer (burned at the stake by “Bloody” Queen Mary), that his poor countrymen know the story of Noah’s Ark but nothing at all of St. Paul. An apt reflection, this signals Mantel’s attempt to take Cromwell on his own terms, to trace the different sides of his mind with honesty instead of sanding down contradictions.

Historical novelists ambitious to dazzle the gatekeepers of literary honor must come to terms with the legacy of psychological portraiture at which Henry James so excelled and which the High Modernists championed. A chariot race, however bracingly described, seems a coarse indulgence when compared to a minutely crafted evocation of individual consciousness. To be sure, Shakespeare gave us compelling equivalents of both in Julius Caesar and Richard II. One could likewise cite the epiphany of Prince Andrei at the oak tree in War and Peace (Tolstoy’s avowed attempt to recapture the thoughts and feelings of a lost heroic age) or, to take a less lofty but still virtuosic example, the realization by Robert Graves’s Claudius that all he has done to preserve the Roman Republic has only hastened its demise. The prose of neither Tolstoy nor Graves is likely to be mistaken for that of Virginia Woolf, but both provide examples of how the mind of a vanished age, as well as its milieu, can be compellingly sketched with words.

Can we know any mind but our own, whether that other inhabits a different century or simply the house next door? Yes and no, of course. Like anyone who crosses our path, Mantel’s Cromwell is like us, while also entirely like himself. Mantel demands that we inhabit his story along with him, in an almost claustrophobic intimacy. This intimacy is signaled by the books’ strange signature phrase, instances of which can be found in any chapter: “He, Cromwell...” Mantel deploys it in moments when we would otherwise be unsure who is about to act or speak, such as when the French executioner who has beheaded Anne Boleyn displays his fearsome sword: “He, Cromwell, touches a finger to the metal.” Why not just say “Cromwell touches a finger…”? The “he” is forced on us as a thing we should take for granted; the “Cromwell” is a condescension that ensures that we know where we are. Artfully awkward, the technique underscores just how closely we are bound to the consciousness of this hitherto unknowable man.

Yet his interiority is decisively keyed to a different age, not just because of his religion but also because of other factors difficult for a late modern to appreciate. We can comprehend Cromwell’s resentment of the scorn directed at him by the wealthy, curled darlings of Henry’s court because of his low birth; less comprehensible is his desire to build not just a fortune but a titled dynasty for his posterity to inherit. And there is his thoroughly unmodern fidelity to the king he distrusts, half despises, yet serves with unstinting obedience.

More potent still is Cromwell’s fidelity to the dead Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell was Wolsey’s man before he was Henry’s, and one of the masterstrokes of Mantel’s conception is to make fidelity to this corpulent, luxury-loving prince of the church Cromwell’s North Star. To him, Wolsey is an icon of sagacity, humor, and broad-mindedness. In Wolf Hall, when he is told of how the townspeople in the provinces prayed for vengeance on Wolsey’s persecutors, he thinks, “God need not trouble…I shall take it in hand.” His eventual beheading is due at least in part to Henry’s suspicion that Cromwell resents him for Wolsey’s downfall. Though a decade has passed the king is not wrong. While Cromwell comes to repent of some of his sins and errors, Wolsey to him remains “my Cardinal” and “my master” up to the trilogy’s last page.

What do the dead ask of us? In a 2015 lecture at the Frick Collection in Manhattan, where Hans Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell hangs opposite that of Thomas More, Dame Hilary explained, in her impossibly delicate voice, that her goal was “to persuade us to look at the world behind [Cromwell’s] eyes.” She succeeded, rooting the imagined psychology of her Cromwell in a deeply realized historical context from which it seems to spring up of necessity. We feel the distinctive pulse of his motivations and understand the hurts, hopes, and presuppositions that spur his decisions. We come to see that this man, whose bones have lain beneath a chapel floor near the Tower of London for nearly five centuries, was like us in his inward parts—and we are invited to remember that the same is true of all those others who have bequeathed this world to us.