History, Fiction, and Historical Fiction (Part 1)

Saturday, October 10, 2012

History, Fiction, and Historical Fiction (Part 1)

Hilary Mantel has won Britain’s prestigious Man Booker prize for fiction, for her novel Bring Up the Bodies, a follow-up to her previous novel, Wolf Hall, which also won the Booker. This two-peat is remarkable enough; but it’s even more remarkable when you consider that both novels are historical fiction, which is sort of the halfwit second-cousin of traditional fiction—the one you’re reluctant to let sit and the table because he chews with his mouth open and laughs too loud—and even more remarkably, it’s fiction about the Tudor court. There are a lot of historical novels about the reign of Henry VIII—a virtual mudslide (in every sense of the word)—but the majority of them feature covers with lushly clad royal ladies and gold-embossed lettering proclaiming things like “Dusk for the Dawn Queen by Callista Pilsen.” (I just made that up, so don’t go looking for it.) (Though if you were tempted to go looking for it, stop reading now. This post is not for you.) Mantel’s two books (a third is to follow) are a gust of cold, clean air to anyone who’s ever tried to slog through any of that miasma of purple prose. Her protagonist is not a royal wife, not Henry himself, but Henry’s impossibly gifted and painfully self-aware chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. And instead of wallowing in the period, Mantel goes at it with a scalpel. I’d only read one Mantel novel (Fludd) before undertaking these two, and I wasn’t prepared for the searing brilliance of them. The Booker committee got it right, and right twice, is all I’m sayin’.

I’m an avid reader of history, and as a novelist I’m of course an avid reader of fiction; yet I don’t read much historical fiction. But this Booker win has got me thinking about the historical periods that most interest me, and how I choose to spend my time there—whether in hard history and biography, or in fiction—because there are a few historical novels that I’ve discovered and cherished over the past three decades, and it’s time I gave them a shout-out.
As long as we’re already on the subject, one my principal historical interests is the British crown, from its first stirrings in the reign of Wessex’s Alfred the Great right through to the tabloid present—but especially the five hundred years between Henry II and Charles II (two of the most complex and magnetic kings). And within that window, the hundred-year-plus Tudor era remains the most consistently interesting to me. This is the tumultuous period when a small feudal kingdom turned a corner, and for better and worse (and there’s plenty of both) charged boldly towards modernity (shirking the Church, breeding nationalism in its place, establishing a prototype police state, etc.). And there was no shortage of collateral damage; in fact sometimes I think I could happily spend the rest of my life reading only biographies of people who had their heads cut off in Tudor times (Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Jane Grey, Mary Queen of Scots, the Earl of Essex—and that’s just a partial list.) But there’s no use denying that my obsession with the era is principally due to the tremendous, larger-than-life, mesmerizing, maddening presences of two monarchs: Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I. You’d think they’d be a gift to novelists (they’ve certainly been so to playwrights and screenwriters); yet good historical fiction about either is pretty much nil—or was, until Mantel.
Even the traditional biographers tend to buckle under the weight of so muchmuchness—and I’ve read a load of Tudor biographies, believe me. There are a couple of writers—Alison Weir, for one—who churn them out like cherry pies; it's a cottage industry. But I find those books exhausting; that everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach—you know what I mean. No, the Tudor biographies I most value, and to which I return most frequently, are two short ones: Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty and Elizabeth Tudor: Portrait of a Queen, both by Lacey Baldwin Smith. He absolutely nails the psychology of both, and does so in very pointed, plangent prose, worth reading for its own sake.
As for historical fiction about the English crown: as I mentioned, it’s slim pickin’s unless you’re in the market for bodice-rippers. But I can wholeheartedly recommend Rose Tremain’s Restoration, a wildly entertaining picaresque saga that features one of my favorite kings, Charles II, in an indelible supporting role, where he functions as something like a cross between a Greek chorus and a deus ex machina. And talks like a 17th-century Noël Coward.
And then, of course, there’s Mantel.
Right, I’ve chattered on long enough; next time I’ll talk about a historical period that grips me even more than royal England does, and which has been much, much luckier in its historical fiction—and in its histories and biographies as well.