Invitation to a Beheading

Anthony Powell, in wise-facetious mood, once quoted an English publisher on how to write “a good Jewish novel”: write a good novel, then change all the names to Jewish ones. The joke came to mind while I was reading Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies” (Holt). Both this new book and its predecessor, “Wolf Hall,” are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness. One of the reasons for this literary success is that Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.

Where much historical fiction gets entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity, Mantel bypasses those knots of concoction, and proceeds as if authenticity were magic rather than a science. She knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one, and that novelists are creators, not coroners, of the human case. In effect, she proceeds as if the past five hundred years were a relatively trivial interval in the annals of human motivation. Here, for instance, is Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of both “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” reflecting on Gregory, his son. The date is September, 1535, and the location London:
Gregory is a good boy, though all the Latin he has learned, all the sonorous periods of the great authors, have rolled through his head and out again, like stones. Still, you think of Thomas More’s boy: offspring of a scholar all Europe admired, and poor young John can barely stumble through his Pater Noster. Gregory is a fine archer, a fine horseman, a shining star in the tilt yard, and his manners cannot be faulted. He speaks reverently to his superiors, not scuffling his feet or standing on one leg, and he is mild and polite with those below him. He knows how to bow to foreign diplomats in the manner of their own countries, sits at table without fidgeting or feeding spaniels, can neatly carve and joint any fowl if requested to serve his elders. He doesn’t slouch around with his jacket off one shoulder, or look in windows to admire himself, or stare around in church, or interrupt old men, or finish their stories for them. If anyone sneezes, he says, “Christ help you!”
The historical details in that passage—Thomas More, Pater Noster, the European diplomats, and so on—are not central to its liveliness. Instead, it is girded by a cunning universalism, whereby Thomas Cromwell becomes any parent competitively comparing his son with someone else’s; the list of a boy’s possible failings (staring around in church, interrupting old men, feeding spaniels at the table), while delightfully specific, seems similarly timeless. By the same token, when a historical fact is central to a novelistic detail, Mantel uses it in a way so novelistically intelligent that the historical fact seems to have been secretly transposed into a fictional one:
This season young men carry their effects in soft pale leather bags, in imitation of the agents for the Fugger bank, who travel all over Europe and set the fashion. The bags are heart-shaped and so to him it always looks as if they are going wooing, but they swear they are not. Nephew Richard Cromwell sits down and gives the bags a sardonic glance.
Do you know if Mantel has manufactured or borrowed from the record this information about the fashionable Fugger bag? In some sense, it doesn’t matter, because the writer has made a third category of the reality, the plausibly hypothetical. It’s what Aristotle claimed was the difference between the historian and the poet: the former describes what happened, and the latter what might happen.

If you want to know what novelistic intelligence is, you might compare a page or two of Hilary Mantel’s work with worthy historical fiction by contemporary writers such as Peter Ackroyd or Susan Sontag. They are intelligent, but they are not novelistically intelligent. They copy the motions but rarely inhabit the movement of vitality. Mantel knows what to select, how to make her scenes vivid, how to kindle her characters. She seems almost incapable of abstraction or fraudulence; she instinctively grabs for the reachably real. Her two most recent novels concern famous historical events—Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, her execution at the King’s orders, the English split from the Roman Church and the authority of the Pope—but they make the stories fragile again, with everything at suspenseful risk.

In short, this novelist has the maddeningly unteachable gift of being interesting. Quite a few readers would be prepared to yawn at a novelistic scene set in 1530, featuring Thomas Cromwell, then one of Henry VIII’s privy councillors, and Thomas Cranmer, the Anglican theologian who gained renown as the author of the Book of Common Prayer. Hasn’t this material been worked over—in descending order of quality—by Ford Madox Ford, by Robert Bolt, and by the TV series “The Tudors”? Yet such a scene in “Wolf Hall” exhibits Mantel’s stealthy dynamics. There is nothing dutifully “historical” about this encounter. Instead, all is alive, silvery, alert, rapid with insight. The two personages size each other up. Cranmer is a modest gentleman’s son, a careful and pious academic from the tiny village of Aslockton, near Nottingham. He is also a Cambridge man, a Fellow of Jesus College, and a little dry and prim. He is two years from being plucked by Henry as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cromwell is the robust, working-class son of a blacksmith, from Putney, on the Thames, now a member of Parliament—enormously astute, but not schooled like Cranmer, who would seem to have the social advantage here. Yet Cranmer appears a timid provincial alongside Cromwell, who spent years in France and Italy, and who often longs for a southern sun. Cromwell compares his childhood with the cloistered Cambridge academic’s, and his reflections open like an estuary:
He thinks, if you were born in Putney, you saw the river every day, and imagined it widening out to the sea. Even if you had never seen the ocean you had a picture of it in your head from what you had been told by foreign people who sometimes came upriver. You knew that one day you would go out into a world of marble pavements and peacocks, of hillsides buzzing with heat, the fragrance of crushed herbs rising around you as you walked. You planned for what your journeys would bring you: the touch of warm terra-cotta, the night sky of another climate, alien flowers, the stone-eyed gaze of other people’s saints. But if you were born in Aslockton, in flat fields under a wide sky, you might just be able to imagine Cambridge: no farther.
There is hardly anything in that wonderful passage of prose to identify its content as time-sensitive; it could almost be thought today.

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