From an essay by Sara Knox first published in Twenty-First-Century British Fiction, Bianca Leggett and Tony Venezia (Eds.). Canterbury, U.K.: Gylphi, 2015.
What the literary historical novel is, and what it should or shouldn’t do, are questions that have long exercised critics, readers and authors from the period of the genre’s triumph to that of its decline.…In a frequently quoted letter dated 5 October 1901, Henry James warns Sarah Orne Jewett of the almost impossible requirements for a true representation of an era, and its habits of mind. ‘You may multiply the little facts to be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like’, writes James, but ‘the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its absence the whole effect is nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness.’ His last word to Jewett was about the cheek of it all: ‘you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force — and even then it’s all humbug’ (quoted in Horne, 1999, 360). James’ letter is itself too frequently ‘simplified back’ to those final three words: ‘it’s all humbug’, forgetting what a perfectionist James was; how high set was his bar. Literary naturalism’s critique of the historical novel is that some feats of imagination are hubris: efforts beyond the artist and therefore beneath the art. But this is to miss James’ qualifier: ‘The real thing is almost impossible to do’, which means: it can be—might be—done. Which is surely reason enough to make the attempt.
The question of what the literary historical novel is, and what it should and shouldn’t do, seemed to have found its moment in 2012, the year in which Hilary Mantel won her second Man Booker prize for Bring Up the Bodies—17 years after the publication of her first historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety. Bring up the Bodies is the second instalment of three novels on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. The first, Wolf Hall, had won Mantel the Man Booker in 2009. Peter Carey, J. G. Farrell, Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee are the only other authors to share the honour of having won two Booker prizes, but Mantel is the only person in the history of the prize to win twice in quick succession, and to win for historical novels in series. Mantel’s Man Bookers (should we call these Man-tel Bookers?) are also distinctive in that her novels represent an era more remote than any other winning ‘historical’: 250 years earlier than those treated, say, by Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. What is notable, then, about Mantel’s double-win is not only how pre-eminently ‘historical’ the novels are, but also the complexity and breadth of the history they offer, intra- and extra-textually. They play out along the same line of historical events—what Wolf Hall begins, Bring Up the Bodies continues—but differ in technique and strategy, as the author learns her subject (Tudor history and the political and intellectual progress of the Protestant reformation) and her Subject (Thomas Cromwell, from whose point of view the events are narrated)
In Bring Up the Bodies we are closely schooled about narrative partiality—the second novel builds on the first book by strengthening Cromwell as a pivot of its action. He is agent and doer, an author of change. This is not only a matter of our orientation to Cromwell as the central character (who is speaking? ‘He, Thomas Cromwell’ is speaking) it is an argument in the making about Thomas Cromwell (Mantel: ‘look to my book for accuracy where I can contrive it, but don’t look to it for impartiality’ [Mares, 2009]). Taken together, the series proposes a history. That they do so troubles some people—particularly (and predictably) Tudor historians. Susan Bordo takes issue with the author’s partiality in Bring Up the Bodies, arguing that what gets storied (or omitted from the story) tells on Cromwell, with whom both author and reader are closely tied. Mantel ‘excludes some key historical material’ that ‘might cause readers to question (her) Cromwell’s view of Anne [Boleyn] as an unfeeling strategist’, and show Cromwell to be ‘more like a thug’ than the author would have us take him (Bordo, 2012). Or rather a different kind of thug—Mantel’s Cromwell is not at all averse to cowing people, though he does so less with violence than by play upon other people’s expectations about what kind of man he was, a man from a ‘dishonourable estate’ (WH, 70), with a past career as a soldier in Italy. Bordo’s concluding judgment vindicates Mantel the novelist but condemns her as a writer of history: ‘the imaginative fiction of “Cromwell’s point of view” is both the novel’s greatest achievement and a handy rationale for playing very loose with the facts’ (2012). But the judgement sits beneath an equivocation (the subtitle of the piece): ‘whether we approve of the liberties taken with history depends on who is taking them—Hilary Mantel or Showtime’ (Bordo, 2012). Mantel’s current pre-eminence as a novelist, and the referred glamour of that eminence on literary historical fiction more generally, secures the ground for the return of a long embattled genre to respectability.
I would here like to assess the contribution of Hilary Mantel to the historical novel—and the question of its existence, its reason for being—by taking up a thread left dangling by A. S. Byatt in her essay ‘Forefathers’ where she talks about the relationship of the historical novel to secrecy, revelation, and the power of interrogation. Byatt first observes the tenacity of writers working in the genre to imagine an ‘extraordinary variety of distant pasts’ (Byatt, 2000, 36) despite the dictum that ‘we cannot know the past … and therefore should not write about it’ (38). Whether a technique of ‘historical ventriloquism’ like that practiced by Peter Ackroyd in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), or ‘novels which play serious games with the idea of narrative itself’ like Graham Swift’s Waterland (Byatt, 48), or the ‘apparently straightforward, realist narrative’ of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Byatt, 2000, 54), she finds the contemporary English historical novel effectively engaged in telling us what we cannot know (2000, 56). Discussing Mantel’s ‘experimental third person narrators’ in A Place of Greater Safety as inheritors of the ‘knowledgeable narrators’ of George Eliot (2000, 54), Byatt suggests that narrators do not have the ‘omniscience of a god’ mistakenly taken to characterise the nineteenth century narrator, but are fictive narrators of small compass and considerable acuity, who ‘can creep closer to the feelings and the inner life of characters…than any first-person mimicry’ (2000, 55). Her sense of Mantel’s ability to ‘tell us what we can’t know’ hinges partly on the novelist making history accessible (viz. the past we cannot know) and partly in her success at bringing the made world near to the reader where the historical record—Henry James’ ‘little facts’—might leave the reader hanging. But the question of what we cannot know shades into that of what we should not know when Byatt observes in passing that there is an ‘interesting path to be explored along the connections between modern historical novels and the popular genres that tell stories about secrecy’ (2001, 57). She quotes historian Richard Cobb on the compulsions of the historian to get the ‘foot in the door, to get behind the façade, to get inside’. For that ‘is what being, or becoming, an historian is all about—the desire to read other people’s letters, to breach privacy, to penetrate into the inner room’ (quoted in Byatt, 2001, 56). The idea of trespass presumes a realm of privacy, but is imagination the realm of privacy against which all trespasses must be defended? Or is imagination the culprit, the trespasser on fact and the real of a vanished past?
In Hilary Mantel’s historical novels the question of knowledge—its standpoint, its limitations, its rights—looms large. So too does that question loom large in the criticism of her work, and of the genre more broadly: in regard to the construction of the historical novel (narrative technique and plotting); in terms of the weltanschuang—what James’ terms the ‘old consciousness’—that the novel must evoke; and in the way historical novels are weighed as historiographical representations, as propositions for imagining a specific past and historical persons.
The use and abuse of the record, and the question of knowledge—facts promulgated or withheld, ideas traded upon or proscribed, associations owned or denied—is at the heart of Mantel’s … historical novels. In her evocation of the Royal Court, of Cromwell’s Putney, and of county and country in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies the covert is dangerous, although a danger Cromwell recognizes as ‘the way of the world’—and like the world—a danger that even-handedly presages a bad end: ‘a knife in the dark, a movement on the edge of vision, a series of warnings that have worked themselves into flesh’ (WH, 76). These threats are general, even democratic, but they loom large for Cromwell since he’s made himself so much the centre of things, agent—even—of actions accounted to others. ‘He used to say, “the king will do such and such.” Then he began to say, “We will do such and such.” Now he says, “This is what I will do.’” (WH, 28). And the spectre of knowledge haunts Mantel’s earlier historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, where questions posed by Enlightenment social thought are answered by ever more bloody inquiries into the workings of order as Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins work to imagine and bring into being a revolution that is something more than the one events have served them.
The question of what-is-knowable but also of who-knows-what leads us to narrative authority and to techniques of narration, but also brings into view the historiographical nature of literary historical fiction in its constructed-ness and subjectivity … as well as its intrusiveness: its tendency toward trespass. That impulse would not be foreign to Mantel, the author, or to her characters. It’s hard to imagine Thomas Cromwell or Camille Desmoulins scrupling much at reading another’s letters, or even from writing them: as Cromwell does for the King (BUTB, 210). And Mantel could not have served the history, or drawn her character, without having read letters—Cromwell’s letters—as they are ‘virtually our only source’ (Mares, 2009) in the documentary record where Cromwell speaks directly, for himself and as himself. To read an historical resource is not to trespass, where the past—and the dead—have by rights given up their ground, but nevertheless the spectre of trespass, and questions about the propriety of knowledge, haunts Mantel’s historical novels.
Mantel’s protagonists are animated by tensions between the impulse to know and the countervailing pressure to repress some knowledge—to obscure a fact, keep a story from the gossips, or suppress a thought. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies treat a period in which the concept of privacy as we recognize it did not exist, while the concept of rights upon which privacy discursively rests is only coming into view in the period of revolutionary upheaval in Europe, the larger world enclosed by the ‘inner rooms’—the domestic interiors—within which the action of A Place of Greater Safety is staged. It narrates the revolution from a near, even an intimate, proximity to Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre (and to a lesser extent, the wives of Desmoulins and Danton) in a ‘blurring of the boundaries between the political and the domestic’ (Hidalgo, 2002, 205). Seldom do we glimpse the public revolutionary about his work, unless it is in the moment just prior to a significant political act or utterance, at its formation but not its completion. Someone says something to someone else; a joke is made at another’s expense while the real cost—a career, a corpse—is still to be counted; the seed of a plan is sown, a rumour set about, an accusation made; something is committed to writing, for private record or publication. In A Place of Greater Safety it is not the concept of privacy per se that is canvassed but the disappearance of the ‘private’ (private life sacrificed to public vertu; private rooms become meeting houses). That the ‘private’ is so swiftly disappearing is fateful for everyone caught up in the revolutionary events in Paris, but particularly so for Danton and Desmoulins. A newly minted man of the people for his part in the street riots leading to the storming of the Bastille, Camille finds his likeness turned out on crockery: ‘[t]his is what happens when you become a public figure, people eat their dinners off you’ (APOGS, 249), while Gabrielle Danton discovers that she and her husband are to have little space to themselves in their new apartment: ‘[a] curtained alcove sheltered twin beds, marked off their private territory from the patriotic circus it had become’ (APOGS, 346). The private is a preserve of privilege and privilege is quickly becoming a liability, as Mirabeau lugubriously observes: ‘I can remember the days…when we didn’t have public opinion. No one had ever heard of such a thing’ (APOGS, 325). This is a response to Danton’s fondly barbed characterisation of Camille, who ‘has to be running ahead of public opinion all the time’ (APOGS, p. 324). Camille leads opinion, but there is also something fugitive and vulnerable in all this ‘running ahead’.
It is over this distinction between the public and the private that the crisis ensues. Danton falls after being implicated in a conspiracy of profiteering (the revolutionary nation is at war), a ‘stock market scandal’ characterised—tellingly—by ‘insider trading’ (Mantel, 2009b). And what condemns Desmoulins, finally, is his commitment to private life—not his own so much as that of an increasingly wide-array of citizens condemned by the Committee for Public Safety, with its private proceedings and its process bearing down on evidence that is, as likely as not, public rumour. Camille remonstrates with Robespierre as the Terror deepens, first doing so in public, and then face-to-face. His article about the tyranny of the reign of Emperor Tiberius makes its accusation by analogy, his revolution having become the thing it derides: ‘the corruption of all human feeling, the degradation of pity to a crime’ (APOGS, 770). Desmoulins means the reader to see Robespierre’s agent, Antoine de Saint-Just, as the instrument of tyranny, but when Robespierre reads the article he recognizes himself. When they meet to discuss this last instance of Camille’s fervor for liberty, it is on a bridge over the Seine, for ‘inside’—as Robespierre puts it—‘you can’t keep secrets’ (APOGS, 771). To which Camille replies, ‘you see—you admit it. You’re eaten away with the thought of conspiracy. Will you guillotine brick walls and doorposts?’ (APOGS, 771). Those ‘brick walls and door posts’ are what sets home off from the world—border to the last preserve of the private. But for Robespierre there is only one inside that counts, one sanctified preserve. After he has agreed to Saint-Just arraigning Camille before the Tribunal, Robespierre tells him: ‘[w]hen this business is over, and Camille is dead, I shall not want to hear your epitaph for him. No one is ever to speak of him again, I absolutely forbid it. When he is dead, I shall want to think of him myself, alone’ (APOGS, 862). This inside is the place of greater safety. Not that arch public face of memory, posterity (‘your epitaph’), nor even the grave itself: it is thought, and that fragile vessel, memory.
For the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the place of greater safety is even more remote, beyond his power to conjure or keep. It is not memory, for the dead do not dwell only there: after his wife, then his daughters, die they can be glimpsed on the stair, they put their small hands beside his on the page as he stands reading by the window. Despite his faith, Cromwell finds little practical comfort in his own inviolate soul: it is not a ground to stand upon; it does not even belong to him. When he imagines the dead in their afterlife, it is in Augustinian terms, resurrection in the shadow of mourning (Augustine: ‘the flesh resurrects in order not to possess but to be possessed, not to have but to be had’ [quoted in Segal, 2004, 279]). When his eldest daughter dies of the sweating sickness Cromwell thinks of her, suddenly complete, not the girl still learning Greek, but the girl ‘who knows it now’. He wonders if that is how it is ‘in a moment, in a simple twist of unbecoming,’—the dead suddenly knowing ‘everything they need to know’ (WH, 152). For the Cromwell we meet at the height of his power, there is only one place of respite from its burdens, only one way to shake off the constant nagging fact of what needs to be done (what he must do). After he has terrified Mark Smeaton, breaking him for the confession that will condemn Anne Boleyn, Cromwell retires to bed. He cannot sleep, and ‘it is only in his dreams that he is private’. Cromwell nurses his wakefulness, remembering the ascetic Thomas More, who ‘used to say you should build yourself a retreat, a hermitage, within your own house. But that was More: able to slam the door in everyone’s face. In truth you cannot separate them, your public being and your private self....’(BUTB, 281) Cromwell would not follow More’s thinking, being Wolsey’s man. When Cromwell first marked down Mark Smeaton it was with the thought ‘the cardinal always says, there are no safe places, there are no sealed rooms’ (WH, 199): meaning, nowhere we won’t have an eye and an ear on you, Mark Smeaton. But in the context of his later interrogation of Smeaton, ‘no safe places’ and ‘no sealed rooms’ has a meaning more pointed. It’s Cromwell who is without a place of greater safety.
Early in the novel of that name, we find Robespierre crafting his public position on the matter of private interests: ‘…private interests and all personal relationships must give way to the general good’. The young lawyer from Arras then puts down his pen and remonstrates with himself: ‘this is all very well, it is easy for me to say that, I have no dearest friend. Then he thought, of course I have, I have Camille’ (APOGS, p. 109). Put in mind of his friend, he searches for his last letter from him, which is ‘rather muddled, written in Greek’. It seems to Robespierre that by ‘applying himself to the dead language, Camille was concealing from himself his misery, confusion and pain; by forcing the recipient to translate, he was saying, believe that my life to me is an elitist entertainment, something that only exists when it is written down and sent by the posts’ (APOGS, 109-110). The passage draws for the reader the whimsical Camille and shows us the central tension—and tragedy—for Robespierre, the seed of his betrayal of his friend to the guillotine. But so too is there something of the reflexive here, a take on historical narrative, the novel, and the historiographical all at once: ‘elitist entertainment’, ‘something that only exists when it is written down’ and transmitted; something that obliges a work of interpretation, and something that obfuscates as much as it reveals.
While it would be too much to suggest that Mantel’s historical novels are ‘historiographic metafictions’ in Linda Hutcheon’s terms they nevertheless do ‘problematize the question of historical knowledge’ (1996, 474) without either the play of the mendacious or the self-referential knowingness of the postmodern historical novel. Respect for fact and the historical record grounds the fiction for the author must keep the ‘conjecture…plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get’ (Mantel, 2009). This commitment to the history in the fiction does not forestall the scholar/story-teller’s healthy respect for the labour of interpretation, whatever the degree of its imaginative working of the facts. ‘The past is not dead ground,’ writes Mantel, ‘and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it.’ Then, implicating herself in the comment, she adds: ‘the most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator’ (2009). In Bring Up The Bodies, Thomas Cromwell meditates on the slippery Thomas Wyatt, ‘the cleverest man in England’ (BUTB, 347).….and the slipperiness of … his craft:
…you trap him and say, Wyatt, did you really do what you describe in this verse? He smiles and tells you, it is the story of some imaginary gentleman, no one we know; or he will say, this is not my story I write, it is yours, though you do not know it. He will say, this woman I describe here, the brunette, she is really a woman with fair hair, in disguise. He will declare, you must believe everything and nothing of what you read.
The substance of the art is indivisible: it can’t be ‘taxed’. Cromwell is admiring the infuriating Wyatt, how self-contained he is; that collected hauteur under interrogation. But from whence comes that strength? ‘You point to the page, you tax him: what about this line, is this true? He says, it is poet’s truth. Besides, he claims, I am not free to write as I like. It is not the king, but metre that constrains me. And I would be plainer, he says, if I could: but I must keep to the rhyme’ (BUTB, 348).
The whole passage can be read as at once a justification for, and a critique of, the imaginative work of the historical novel and the ‘trespasses’ of the novelist. Consider the context for the passage: Cromwell is characterising Wyatt—the Wyatt who is lucky, protected. There is evidence that could have damned him along with the other ‘conspirators’ in Anne’s sexual betrayal of the King but when Mark Smeaton is naming names, and blurts Wyatt’s, Cromwell is definite: ‘No, not Wyatt’ (BUTB, 283). Partiality and evidence contest here, and partiality wins. It is necessary for Cromwell to preserve Wyatt, for Wyatt is a principal embodied—albeit a troubled principal. The passage tellingly turns from its mediation on art (‘A Statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it’ [BUTB, 348]) to the messages of Angels, and the elusiveness of their nature. Cromwell has no doubt that Angels exist, but knows not whether they have the ‘plumage of falcons, crows, peacocks’ (BUTB, 348). And the only evidence he has from someone (‘a turnspit in the papal kitchens’) who has seen one provides little comfort, for ‘the Angel’s substance was heavy and smooth as marble, its expression distant and pitiless; its wings were carved from glass’ (BUTB, 349). These are terrifying emissaries of the only truth that counts, the truth toward which a ‘poet’s truth’ is aimed, but can never reach.
In this passage—from Cromwell explaining Wyatt to Risley, to the meditation on art and the nature of angels—it is difficult not to hear the author remonstrating with critics like Bordo: ‘You point to the page, you tax him: what about this line, is this true?’ Mantel’s defence is ‘poet’s truth’: ‘I would be plainer, but I must keep to the rhyme’. For the literary historical novelist, history is ‘the king’ that does not constrain, and form ‘the metre’ that must. But if this is a defence, it is a qualified one: recognising the privilege of the interpretation, and its trespass (Wyatt is favoured, Wyatt is protected; Wyatt’s ‘lines fledge feathers’—so just leave him to his work). For there are Angels, they hover at a farther horizon. They are History—which is the blind passing of human time on this earth, not the ‘history’ that remembers us.
Sara Knox is an Associate Professor in the the Writing and Society Research Group and the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of Murder: a Tale of Modern American Life (Duke University Press, 1998) and other notable works on violence and representation. Her most recent publications include work on Hilary Mantel, including a study of the moral geography of violence in Mantel's novels, and the regeneration of the historical novel as literary genre. Her novel The Orphan Gunner (Giramondo, 2007) won the 2009 Asher Literary Prize and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Age Book of the Year.
Her blog can be found at: saralouiseknox.wordpress.com
Bordo, Susan (2012, May 6) ‘When Fictionalized Facts Matter: From ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ to Hilary Mantel’s New Bring Up the Bodies’, Chronicle of Higher Education, URL (consulted December 2012):
Byatt, Antonia S. (2000) ‘Forefathers’, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto and Windus.
Hidalgo, Pilar (2002) ‘Of Tides and Men: History and Agency in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety’, Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense 10: 201-216.
Horne, Philip (1999) Henry James: a Life in Letters. New York: Viking.
Hutcheon, Linda (1996) ‘The Pastime of Past Time: Fiction, History, Historiographic Metafiction’, in Hoffman & Murphy (eds.), Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. London: Leicester University Press.
Mantel, Hilary (2008a, 24 May) ‘Author, Author’, The Guardian. URL (consulted December 2012)
Mantel, Hilary (2009a, 17 Oct) ‘Booker Winner Hilary Mantel on Dealing with History in Fiction’, The Guardian. URL (consulted December 2012)
Mantel, Hilary (2012) Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Mantel, Hilary (1992) A Place of Greater Safety. London: Viking.
Mantel, Hilary (2009) Wolf Hall. London: Harper Collins.
Mares, Peter (2009, 18 June) ‘Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall’ [Radio Interview], The Book Show. ABC Radio. URL (consulted December 2012)
Segal, Alan (2004) Life After Death: a History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. New York: Doubleday.