A world of experience

I’m not too sure why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Hilary Mantel’s novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell—I probably found the whole award-winning thing a bit off-putting, as I have a variety of reservations about prizes and awards. I do know, however, a lot of people who read and loved these books as they came out, and recommended them to me enthusiastically. As a fan of fantasy world-building, a good historical novel is an equal joy, given that the same methods and techniques are required to immerse its readers in its setting, and having finally read Wolf Hall, I can unequivocally report that I’ve only encountered a handful of fantasy books that are in the same league, either in terms of world-building or of novel-making. I suppose at some point in preparing to write a novel, the author has to decide what it’s going to be ‘about’. I don’t mean what its setting will be, or which events it concerns itself with, or who its protagonists might be, so much as which of these and other general categories will be its focus. Fantasy books can sometimes be something of a pretext for presenting the invented world in which they are set; thrillers are required by the conventions of their genre to be more interested in the things that happen than the people who are involved; lit-fic is similarly constrained by expectation to focus on the inner lives of its characters. As a publishing genre, historical fiction falls between several stools, as reflected by its shelving in public libraries, where it can be divided between categories such as ‘adventure’, ‘crime’, ‘romance’, ‘general fiction’, ‘saga’, or ‘young adult’, as often as it finds a home in ‘historical’. With Wolf Hall, Mantel chose not only to write a book set in a relatively distant historical milieu, but write it about a politician, in an era where politics was played for high stakes. These choices would have made it extremely easy to write a thriller—to elaborate in great detail and with great drama the chains of causality that connect one event to another—and in many ways probably made it quite hard to avoid doing so. However, while Wolf Hall is meticulously plotted, that intricate underlying structure is revealed only in glimpses, in episodic disclosures of the contents of Thomas Cromwell’s mind and heart, because that is what this book is about: it’s about the experience of being Hilary Mantel’s version of this much maligned historical figure.

Of course the texture of experience is formed in intimate integration with the individual’s environment, so that focus on Cromwell’s experience also serves to foreground Mantel’s worldbuilding. In fact, if my interest in worldbuilding has yielded one significant insight, it’s that characters and worlds make each other. I mean, you can invent and describe a world, as though writing a Wikipedia article, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of writing made on that basis, for example in the form of role-playing game sourcebooks, but at the end of the day my interest in such texts is sustained only by their capacity to support the imaginary experience of the people who live in them. A world is to be lived in, and a character in a book will be vivid to the reader only inasmuch as they appear to inhabit and to be formed by a coherent and internally consistent world. Mantel understands this very well, and her characters are formed in the mould of a society which she has had to invent, notwithstanding the rigour and accuracy of her research. She has asked pertinent questions which connect the world of her readers to that of her characters. How might people express love and affection under these very different social circumstances? How might the perennial dysfunction of family relationships be manifest? What might it mean to have fun, to live with humour, in her imagining of Tudor England? The answers to such questions (and the many others which she asks) are not the business of the historian, except in their broadest outlines, because 99% of the meanings and social residues of those matters are lost to us—only incidentally and tangentially do they leave any mark on the documentary record, aside from isolated examples of memoir and in personal letters, few of which survive. The work of the historical novelist is not simply to ‘set’ a story in a world which they can find ready made in history books: they have to invent it, they have to construct it in the experiences of their characters, who in turn must be built from the same materials as the society which forms them. This work is fundamentally as speculative as that required by writers of more ostensibly fanciful genres such as fantasy and science-fiction.

As my imaginary reader can probably infer, I think that Mantel has done these things with great skill. Few readers will finish Wolf Hall without forming a good deal of sympathy for Thomas Cromwell, a man who has been consistently portrayed by history as a thuggish enforcer in Henry VIII’s conflict with the Catholic Church. Mantel endows him with a character which is thoughtful and strategic, and sometimes ruthless, as befits a politician who was, for a spell, the second most powerful man in England; but he is also kind, and humorous, possessed of a wry detachment and inner calm, which were the qualities memorably emphasised by Mark Rylance in his portrayal of Cromwell for the excellent BBC adaptation, also called Wolf Hall. Other characters are imagined in similar depth and detail, although it is largely through the lens of Cromwell’s perception and understanding that we see them. I am not knowledgeable with regard to this period of English history, so I can’t say to what degree these portrayals accord with or contradict the usual historical accounts of these figures. Her version of Thomas More is not very sympathetic, painting him as something of a cruel fanatic, albeit one whose personal integrity led him to die for his principles. I have no idea if this is a fair portrayal or not, but I tend to envisage a man with more breadth of imagination, given what a towering figure the author of Utopia is in the history of worldbuilding. However, it is fruitless and counterproductive to ask whether these are accurate portrayals, or even whether they are fair ones. They are plausible to the extent that they are well-made, and these are some of the best-made characters I’ve encountered in prose fiction. Nobody can know the singular ‘truth’ of these men and women, but anyone who can read has access to the singular truth of Mantel’s vision, which is remarkably subtle and multi-faceted, and which is realised with uncommon facility.

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