In an iTunes “Meet the Author” podcast recorded not long after Hilary Mantel won her unprecedented second Booker Prize for Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume in her projected fictional trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell now available in paperback from Picador, she talks about her reaction to the criticism from some readers that her treatment of her protagonist was too positive. Cromwell was an evil man, and moral rectitude required an author to make sure the reader knew it. First of all she points out that despite, the negative reputation attached to Cromwell by some historians, definitive information about his activities and his motivations is not available. And secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, there is history and there is fiction, and there are different rules for each.
In the author’s note at the end of the book she begins by explaining that the history of the period is both complex and controversial. She is not “claiming authority” for her version. She is attempting to look at events as she imagines Cromwell might have looked at them. She is “making the reader a proposal, an offer.” This is not fact. It is not history. Towards the end of the novel in a conversation with Thomas Wriothesley, Cromwell — talking about the poetry of Thomas Wyatt — explains the nature of what is called “poet’s truth.” The poet — and by extension the historical novelist — “will declare, you must believe everything and nothing of what you read.” If there is truth in Wyatt’s poetry, it is a truth of a different order from the truth of history. It is the same kind of truth that the reader gets from Bring Up the Bodies.
Whether Thomas Cromwell as portrayed by Mantel is or is not an accurate characterization of the actual historical figure is an irrelevant question. There are important questions about the portrait. Is the character and his motivation reasonable? Does he behave consistently in the context of his character? In other words, is he believable? And the answer to that is unquestionably “yes.” Hilary Mantel has created one of the great characters in modern fiction; she has turned a historical figure often vilified as a self-serving sycophant into a complex fully developed rounded individual, so complex that readers aren’t always sure exactly how they should react to him. They may even find themselves grudgingly admiring him. That she managed this with a 16th century politician with this less than stellar reputation is testimony to her power as a novelist.
No less a testament is her evocation of the court of Henry VIII, its factions and jealousies, its power struggles and intrigues. While Wolf Hall, the first book of the trilogy, takes the reader from 1500 through 1534 beginning with hero’s childhood and following his rise to power under the tutelage of Cardinal Woolsey and eventual role in the dissolution of the marriage to Katherine, the new volume limits itself to the period of about a year and a half (1535-36) and Cromwell’s role in the decline and fall of Anne Boleyn. It contains masterful portraits of a large cast of characters great and small as they vie for favor and position in a society dependent on the whims of a very fickle power. It is Cromwell’s skill in reading those whims and making himself useful, if not indispensable, that is the source of his power at court.
In a world where it has always been birth that merited power, Cromwell becomes one of the earliest examples of power achieved through merit. There are the courtiers who disrespect him as a commoner who doesn’t know his place, but they are wrong. He understands completely, and if he resents their treatment, he knows what to do about it. He “remains a nobody. The king gives him titles that no one abroad understands, and jobs that no one at home can do, He multiplies offices, duties pile on him: plain Master Cromwell goes out at morning, plain Master Cromwell comes in at night.” Cromwell understands the danger of getting too big for one’s idiomatic britches. Plain Master is fine for now. There will come a time when Master will no longer be enough, and when it does come, it may well be the beginning of the end, but that time is not now.
From the opening indications of King’s growing interest in the plain faced Jane Seymour to the machinations around the demise of Anne, Bring Up the Bodies is a masterpiece of storytelling. Mantel manages to create an intensity of expectation even when the reader is well aware of what is going to happen. Her prose exudes a sense of urgency that simply pulls the reader along willy-nilly. But, having garnered award upon award and just about every kind of praise available to a work of prose fiction, this much honored book doesn’t need me to extol its merits. The only thing this book needs is readers, and more to the point — readers need this kind of book.