Category Archives: historical novels

Bringing History to Life Again

Three years ago I wrote a post called Bringing History to Life, about Hilary Mantel’s two masterpieces, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both Man Booker prizes. I fell in love with them three years ago, on a Christmas visit to family in the west, and I’ve recently re-read them. I love re-reading books that are so fine in texture, rich in description and characterisation, that create an imagined (in this case historical) world you can enter and inhabit for a time. This is the next best thing to the Tardis; perhaps better, because you are not embodied or materialised there, so you are safe, in this case from decapitation or the torture wrack, or Henry VIII’s wrath, or Anne Boleyn’s tantrums and scheming. Or, in my case, from the seductive power of Thomas Cromwell’s formidable intellect and his subtly charismatic ability to manage people and to direct the course of affairs at a high level, while seeming to serve those who have greater rank and power than him. Of course, we know, he came to a bloody end, like those Anne Boleyn and several of her admirers who are framed as her lovers had at his hands, when he was at the height of his influence in the court. Despite his machinations, we are able to forgive him because he is doing what Henry, his master, wants; his own integrity is somehow not corrupted by the fact that he is raising people to power then bringing them down when their star is eclipsed by Henry’s shifting desires and whims. So there is a knife edge morality in this book, which doesn’t judge, but allows  you to take sides as the wind shifts, and to understand why Cromwell acted as he did, even though you can’t necessarily understand or accept Henry’s motivation, or the way people are taken up, used, then discarded.

We have long awaited the promised third book in this historical saga. It seems that it is still coming: http://blogs.abc.net.au/wa/2015/02/hilary-mantel-reveals-timing-of-her-next-book-and-whats-next-after-thomas-cromwell.html. There will be great excitement when it is released.

For now, I can’t add much more to my previous post on the two books, except to say that they seem to grow in richness and texture with each re-read. I also love the BBC dramatisation, Wolf Hall. Inevitably, with two big books crammed into 8 episodes, it is much abbreviated; but the superb settings, filming, and scripting, and above all the star performance by Mark Rylance (I fell for him even more than his print version in the books), well supported by a wonderful cast, including Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Bolyn, make it a model of historical TV drama .

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Filed under historical novels, literary awards