Historical Novels versus History Books, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall: The Power To Make You Feel You’re An Insider in the World of Henry VIII

Hilary Mantel’s  success in winning the Man Booker Prize for her novel “Bring Up the Bodies” has provoked many varying opinions of her work. For my part, I look forward to reading this second book in her Tudor Trilogy.

Hilary Mantel has opened up the life of Thomas Cromwell (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)
Hilary Mantel has opened up the life of Thomas Cromwell (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)
The other day I had a conversation with a keen reader who said, “I don’t like historical novels. I’d far sooner read a history book. If I read a historical novel, I think: But how can they possibly know?”

Of course, how can Hilary Mantel possibly know? But when I’d finished “Wolf Hall”, I felt as if I’d been an insider in the world of Henry VIII. I bought the book following a friend’s recommendation. She said she found it so powerful that she couldn’t read anything else for a considerable amount of time after she’d finished it.

And certainly, reading this book changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we are in throughout the novel. Upon reading Hilary Mantel’s account of this man, I admire him and can understand his role in relation to Henry, and his extraordinary gifts as he navigated Henry’s changing whims.

As to Henry himself… what was his prayer? That he might have a healthy, long-lived, legitimate male heir to take over the English Throne for the Tudors, and hold it strongly into the future.

I can imagine now how he must have felt each time Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. He felt professionally devastated and personally anguished; frightened that he had incurred the displeasure of God; afraid that after having been in his hands the throne would go where he did not want it to go; afraid his hopes and dreams would never be fulfilled; afraid that this was God’s punishment. After all, the English Throne was his professional business, his livelihood, his calling.

Now, of course, with historical hindsight, we can see how wrong he was:  wrong to have Anne Boleyn beheaded; and wrong to have various people brutally slaughtered for not agreeing with his divorce, and for not thinking the right things at the right time about religion, and for thinking he, Henry, was wrong.

But what should he have done instead, according to us with our historical hindsight? We may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and patiently and with forbearance lived out his life married to her.

What actually happened? Ultimately the English Throne became strong and proud under a very long reign by the child Anne Boleyn bore him – notwithstanding the fact that this monarch was a female – a monarch who became in the eyes of many then and since, Britain’s best and most famous monarch: Elizabeth I.

So we may well say that God answered Henry’s prayer – but not in the way he expected.

This philosophical rumination has been inspired by “Wolf Hall” simply because so many of us are familiar with the Tudor story – but in fact the narrative of this, the first novel in the trilogy, only goes as far as the execution of Sir Thomas More leaving the downfall of Anne Boleyn still in the future.

Perhaps the thing that most fascinated me about “Wolf Hall” is the way the reader follows through delicate, graceful, civilised conversations – gentle, balanced, measured… and then out of them comes a decision to burn someone alive, or have them hanged, drawn and quartered.

One sentence in the book stands out for me: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”

Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what this book shows you about human nature  will stay with you.