What is historical fiction?
April 23, 2010
Editor's Note: This piece from the archives was published in our May/June 2010 issue.
What counts as historical fiction? The question is more difficult than it might appear. Few people think of War and Peace as a historical novel, even though it concerns events of great importance that occurred half-a-century before Tolstoy wrote. Most readers of the book seem to have the sense that Tolstoy is not nearly as interested in conveying the textures of life in that particular time and place—Russia around the time of Napoleon's invasion in 1812—as he is in exploring, with great sensitivity, how those events impinge on the consciousness of his characters. Much the same could be said of George Eliot's Middlemarch, set during the Reform Bill debates that occupied the English public's attention four decades before Eliot began her story. Though Reform provides a certain political and social context for the story, relatively few of those who have cared deeply about the fortunes of Dorothea Brooke have felt the need to master the intricacies of that moment in English history.
We tend, rather, to use the term "historical fiction" when we feel that a primary goal of the author is to render, with a certain richness of detail, an environment from the past. This is not to imply that such books will not be concerned with, say, character development, but that great pains will be—or should be—taken to situate such development in a socio-cultural context that is clearly different than our own. (Thus the most common accusation made against a historical novel is anachronism: a failure to realize the full otherness of the era in which it is set, or a tendency to enact mere costume drama, in which otherwise perfectly modern people simply wear period clothing and travel on ships instead of airplanes.) If it does not matter much to readers that Dorothea Brooke's story begins around 1830 instead of 1870, it matters very much to readers of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatterthat its heroine lives in 14th-century Norway. The historical environment is as central to the novel's overall tone and feel as the protagonist. The same can be said for all the landmarks of the genre, from Sir Walter Scott—who virtually invented historical fiction in the early 19th century—to Patrick O'Brian's extraordinary series of novels about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
People tend to enjoy reading about history through the medium of fictional narrative, and as a result the historical novel is often dismissed by high-minded critics as mere "genre fiction" without serious literary merit. This can lead the defenders of certain books to say that they're not really historical fiction at all, but rather fiction that merely happens to be set in the past—see the comments on War and Peaceand Middlemarch above. Such debates are pretty frequent, but occupied as they must be with drawing impossibly precise lines based on extremely vague categories, are also fruitless. (Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon—or Toni Morrison's Beloved—is or is not a historical novel. Discuss.)
Despite the dismissals, a look at the history of candidates for major English-language literary prizes—the Pulitzers and National Book Awards in the United States, the Man Booker prize in the UK—suggests that historical fiction, or work plausibly described as such, has been rising in critical estimation. In fact, the chief controversy surrounding the 2009 Booker shortlist was the dominance of books set in the past: A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book (England in the late Victorian era through World War I), Simon Mawer's The Glass Room (Czechoslovakia in the 1930s), Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger (England in the austerity years after World War II), Adam Foulds' The Quickening Maze (Victorian England, in a story featuring the poets Tennyson and John Clare), and—the eventual winner—Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (England in the time of Henry VIII). The only book on the shortlist that might be exempted from the "historical" moniker is J. M. Coetzee's autobiographical novel, or fictionalized memoir, Summertime, and even that book is set in the 1970s and takes some pains to evoke the ambiance of that era.
A number of critics suggested that this list marked a preference for the accessible and the safe, with the clear—though unexamined—assumptions that accessibility is the enemy of literary excellence and the past is innocuous territory to explore. In fact, neither of these assumptions could survive much scrutiny. In particular, the very striving to understand the past through fiction—taking the risk that the lives of people who breathed long ago, and in societies quite alien to our own in many ways, can be rendered through their own eyes and in their own tongues—is a brave thing to do. And for the author determined to avoid costume drama, an extremely difficult task to set oneself. Let us explore these matters through an investigation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.
The first thing that I must say about Wolf Hall is that I did not enjoy it nearly as much as I had hoped to, though my discontent has nothing to do with Mantel's imaginative reconstruction of history. The problem is pronouns. Consider these sentences from a discussion between the book's protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, and his patron and employer Cardinal Wolsey (more about them in a moment):
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."
"But what will happen to the queen?" he asks.
I understood as I read that the first three pronouns refer to Wolsey; only after reading another hundred words or so did I realize that the fourth "he" is Cromwell. Another example: "He says something, the cardinal says something. They break off. Two sentences go nowhere. The cardinal resumes his chair. He hesitates before him; he sits down." And: "He's always sending him bills that he believes he's paid; I need a household accountant, he thinks."
There are dozens of passages like this in Wolf Hall. Again and again I had to go back and re-read passages to figure out who was speaking to whom (or who was thinking what). In every case I managed to figure it out—I think—but not without paying a price in frustration and loss of attentiveness. I understand why Mantel does this: she writes consistently from Cromwell's point of view, and the pronoun distances us from him less than the use of his name does. But the book reads as though it had been written in the first person and then, at the last minute, shifted to the third. If I had not agreed to write about Wolf Hall, I might not have finished it, despite its many merits. Given the accolades the book has received, it can't be that many readers have shared my annoyance, but book reviewers are human too; thus this confession.
That said, let us set the context for the book. It begins with a kind of prologue in the year 1500, as a poor boy named Thomas Cromwell is being beaten and kicked by his drunken lout of a father. Thomas determines to leave home and seek his fortune as a soldier on the Continent, and sets off—but when we meet him again, on the next page, 27 years have passed, and he is now an intimate personal agent of Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England, also Archbishop of York and a Cardinal of the church—the most powerful man in the country with the signal exception of the king, Henry VIII. Gradually, but only gradually, we learn that Cromwell has been in Wolsey's service for several years; that he is fluent in several languages; that he had lived long in Italy, and prefers that land to England; that he is a lawyer; that he was once a Member of Parliament; perhaps most intriguingly, that he knows the whole of the New Testament by heart.
It is important that Mantel begins her narrative in 1527, because that year marked the beginning of Wolsey's decline: despite his many and great services to the king, he could never procure an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This was Henry's great goal—he was determined to marry Anne Boleyn, whom he was convinced would bear him a son—and Wolsey's failure to make that happen led to his dismissal, his arrest, and eventually his death. (He died while traveling from Yorkshire to London to face charges of treason.)
During the years of his power, Wolsey knew all there was to know about the inner workings of Court and Church, but less elevated regions of society were beyond his immediate scrutiny, and in Mantel's telling of the tale, this largely explains his employment of Thomas Cromwell. In the 27 years that span our first and second views of Cromwell, he had lived several lives, none of them especially respectable; and he knew intimately certain social sectors, all of them requiring knowledge of law and skill with money, over which the Cardinal Lord Chancellor of England required mastery. Cromwell's past is revealed to us only sporadically, chiefly through the man's fragmentary memories.
More directly in our view is the world of Henry's court, and this, at first, Cromwell knows little about. We learn its perversities and stratagems just as he does. As he rises in knowledge, power, and influence, we move with him. The dominant figures of the age—Henry himself, Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary, Thomas More, the radical Protestants (as we would now call them) associated with William Tyndale and his Bible—we see as Cromwell does. And seeing as Cromwell does is, I think, the whole point of the book. Not for Mantel the intricate reconstructions of the material world of Tudor England—which may be just as well, since such reconstructions can be narratively problematic: Byatt's The Children's Book is so heavily bedecked with erudition about everything late-Victorian, from clothing styles to the condition of museums to the popular cult of the supernatural, that the book's actual story is often obscured. Mantel's interest in history is more psychological: though, for instance, we may well have Wolsey's elaborate personal drapery described to us, or Mary Boleyn's green stockings, or the carpets in Thomas More's house in Chelsea—because Cromwell sees and notes such things—we move quickly from them to more intimate relations between persons: their words, their silences, their gestures of hand or eye. If I were forced to describe Wolf Hall as a historical novel or a psychological one, I would have to choose the latter.
This psychological focus is especially important because Mantel clearly thinks of Cromwell as the most modern person in her story—the one most like Us. In her vision he is an utterly non-ideological man with little intrinsic interest in power forced to live in a profoundly ideological and power-mad age. His strongest feelings are for his wife and children—he loses that wife and both of his daughters to the "sweating sickness" (we would call it malaria)—and when a colleague finds him weeping over his dead loved ones, Cromwell pretends that he cries for fear that he will fall when the Cardinal does. The lie is more than plausible: no one in Henry's court could think of a more likely reason for tears. Cromwell is even tender towards animals, in an age noted for its cruelty to them.The conventional narratives of the Tudor age contrast Thomas More's reluctant ascent to power, and stubborn loyalty to the Church even in the face of death, with Cromwell's unprincipled Machiavellian shrewdness. Mantel doesn't quite invert the equation, but she nearly does. Confined as we are to Cromwell's perspective, we can't know what really motivates More, but Cromwell certainly doubts that the piety goes all the way down: at one point he even asks More directly whether he could have risen to the place of Lord Chancellor "by accident." Cromwell, meanwhile, commends himself to others not through readiness to sell his services but through his very loyalty to Wolsey: when everyone knows that Wolsey is doomed, and that any shrewd man would flee so as not to get caught up in the Cardinal's destruction, Cromwell pursues every possible means to restore Wolsey to the King's favor. The Boleyns, the Duke of Norfolk, even the King himself: Cromwell approaches them all, seeks their support for the Cardinal, and in the process discovers that they want him to serve them as well. He has been Wolsey's fixer—why shouldn't he be theirs? After all, when Wolsey does fall, Cromwell will need a job.
It is in this way, as Mantel tells the tale, that Cromwell rises—supplanting More, who had supplanted Wolsey—to be the first servant of King Henry: not from love of power, nor from absolute commitment to a Cause, but from simple yet absolute competence. He gets things done. And perhaps he gets them done because power and ideology are secondary to him: you can think more clearly about what doesn't touch your heart of hearts. In his deepest being, Mantel's Cromwell is the man who procures peacock feathers so that his little daughter (who would soon die) can be the most beautiful angel in the Christmas play. "But Grace stood glittering, her hair entwined with silver threads; her shoulders were trussed with a spreading, shivering glory, and the rustling air was perfumed as she breathed. Lizzie said, Thomas, there's no end to you, is there? She has the best wings the city has ever seen."
Much of the material culture of the past can be known. When Cromwell describes for the women of his household the clothing of Anne Boleyn—the fabric of her gown, the cut of her headdress—we believe that indeed it was so. If Mantel did not get these details right, she could have and should have. But people's inner lives are always constructed in our imaginations, and this is true whether they are our contemporaries or figures from the distant past. The story of the courtier who finds Cromwell weeping, and to whom Cromwell expresses his fear that he will fall with Wolsey, was not invented by Mantel: it's part of the historical record. Mantel's contribution is the notion that Cromwell lied about his tears and was really thinking of his beloved dead. And this could have been the case; we cannot know. But that's not because Cromwell lived half a millennium ago. When Lord Chancellor More adds to the charges against Wolsey one that Cromwell knows to have been fabricated, Cromwell tries to imagine what went through More's mind when he made that claim—but he cannot do it; More lies always beyond the reach of his imagination, even though the two men are in frequent contact.
Such deep meditations on interior lives are, we have often been told, the fruit of the Reformation. It was Luther and his heirs who taught us to look within and see the baseness there, to be clear-eyed and unwavering in discerning our sin nature, so that we can turn to God and plead only his mercy: "We do earnestly repent, and be heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burthen of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake forgive us all that is past"—so says the General Confession written by Cromwell's contemporary Thomas Cranmer. And was not Cromwell the effectual architect of the English Reformation, the man whose policies made the emergence of the Church of England possible?
The architect, yes; but—again, this is the conventional narrative—not out of conviction, rather out of mere obedience to King Henry's wish to be freed from the authority of Rome. But, again, who really knows what Cromwell's thoughts on such matters were? The Cromwell conjured by Mantel is deeply drawn to Tyndale's Bible and Tyndale's Lutheran theology—on the deaths of his wife and daughters, he reaches there for comfort rather than to the Catholic piety of his wife, to which he also publicly assents—but "to be drawn to" is not "to be committed to." Cromwell's religious convictions are elusive to us, but Mantel would have us see that they were elusive even to himself. (The same can be said for many of us.) What this Cromwell clearly does believe is that More's theological and ecclesiastical certainties, and the fierce campaign against heresy that they engendered, are bad policy and immoral besides. He—he who is kind even to dogs and cats—flinches at More's cruelties, and sympathizes with the Protestants simply because they are hunted down and persecuted. When he rises to be Henry's chief minister, he becomes a remorseless enemy of the Church's power not because he hates the Church but because he sees how thoroughly power corrupts, and wants to limit it wherever he can.
Again, in all these ways Mantel's Cromwell is a characteristically late-modern Western man who happens to be living at the beginnings of modernity. By envisioning him so, Mantel has rendered much simpler the task of making the historical novel into a psychological novel. Could she have told the story of More, or for that matter Tyndale, in this manner? I think not. Author and protagonist merge nicely at this point: the True Believer remains inaccessible to them both.
There is one more sense in which this Cromwell manifests the late-modern experience: in repudiating the powers of the Church, he inadvertently, or perhaps half-consciously, throws that power to the State. For Cromwell, even Mantel's Cromwell, does more than almost anyone in history to enable that transfer of authority. In limiting the power of the Church's ministers to pursue and punish sinners, in transferring the right to define the condition of marriage from Church to King and Parliament, in making all property effectively the gift of the State, he creates almost from whole cloth the vast powers of modern government. And he grows increasingly aware of the portentous exchange he has made. In the last pages of the book, set in the year 1535, he visits More, imprisoned in the Tower of London. "Last week the people were rioting in York," he says:
"Why would they not, with wheat so scarce, and twice the price of last year? I must stir up the justices to make examples, I suppose, otherwise the whole of the north will be out with billhooks and pikes, and who will they slaughter but each other? I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free."
At this point we do well to remember that the man he is speaking to wrote the book called Utopia.
This novel is called Wolf Hall because that is the home of the Seymour family. It and they play a small role in the story, which makes the title an odd one; but Cromwell's son Gregory marries Elizabeth Seymour, and it is thus to Wolf Hall that our protagonist is headed, for a much-needed respite from the cruelties of politics, as the book ends. But we know, as Cromwell does not, that when Anne Boleyn falls from favor—her execution managed by Cromwell just as her ascent to the throne had been—Henry will marry Elizabeth's sister Jane Seymour. And when Jane dies while giving birth to the son Henry had wanted for so long, Cromwell will hasten Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves; and this, in turn, will bring about Cromwell's own rapid and utter ruin. It turns out that there is no refuge from the King, from politics, from the State that Cromwell has done much to make. So goes the lesson of History, as well as this novel. Hilary Mantel is now writing the story of the last five years of Cromwell's life.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne) and Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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