|Hampton Court Palace, Anne Boleyn's Gateway|
Photograph © John S. Turner & licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.
I’ve recently finished reading Bring Up the Bodies, the second novel in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s ‘Master Secretary’. As you’d hope for a work long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize, Bring up the Bodies is an accomplished literary novel. Mantel has an excellent eye for the poetic and poignant in historical events - there are haunting passages here, for example, about Catherine of Aragon remembering her Spanish childhood, or holding onto keepsakes of her marriage.
As in Wolf Hall, Mantel engages closely, subtly and artfully with the leading academic research on the Tudor court. She tells the reader that she is offering an interpretation ("a proposal, an offer") of the fall of Anne Boleyn, one of the most closely-researched and hotly contested issues in Henrician studies. Like a very good undergraduate, she has read the literature, knitted it together, taken what she judges to be the most plausible bits of each account (Ives, Starkey, Warnicke etc.) and put them together into her own analytical narrative.
One of the criteria for
Oxford undergraduate entry is ‘historical
imagination’, the ability to think creatively about the past. Bring up the Bodies and Wolf Hall are indeed wonderful ‘imaginings’ of
the court of the Henry VIII. Mantel has spun a layer of fine literary prose,
like gilt, over the corpus of academic literature on Anne Boleyn, Cromwell and the
king. Beautiful though these novels are, however, they are not, I think,
telling us anything very new historically. And this is why I find them technically impressive, but also strangely unsatisfying. Arguably, the very best historical
fiction offers not just a meticulous imagining of specific historical events,
but a bold, original and wholesale re-imagining of a period – as Andrea
Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal does
for 19C exploration, and Andrew Miller’s Pure (creepily!) for the French ancien regime. Mantel’s novels shed unexpected,
poetic light on the fine-grained details of 16C court life (Jane Seymour’s
skin, Anne Boleyn’s hand gestures, Catherine of Aragon’s silk roses), but I’m
not sure that the trilogy has yet offered a panoramic, dynamic new vision of Tudor England and its meanings.