Tudor England is a sure-fire winner in fiction terms. It’s just produced a triple prizewinner in the shape of Hilary Mantel, who bagged the Costa Book Award two days ago after winning the Man Booker twice for her novels about Thomas Cromwell.
I find the success of these books perplexing. Mantel is the author of several good novels, including Fludd and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, but she isn’t obviously the best writer working in the UK today.
It isn’t even as if the Cromwell novels are Mantel’s best work; she’s always had a taste for soap opera, which led her to write an interminable novel about the French Revolution. The faults of that book are all-too-evident in what will soon be her Cromwell trilogy. Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies are, once again, soap opera in period costume. They’re like plotlines in The Archers, where one drama grips everyone until something just as compelling pops up to take its place. The disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s repudiation of Catherine, his break with Rome, his hasty marriage to Anne Boleyn; all of these canter past like the latest episode in a long-running drama series.
Bring Up the Bodies centres on a hugely dramatic event, the judicial murder of Boleyn after she fails to give Henry a male heir.
But it’s seen through the eyes of Cromwell, who views every occasion with a calculus of self-interest: “If she could have brought Katherine to this same place, she would have. If her sway had continued, the child Mary might have stood here; and he himself, of course, pulling off his coat and waiting for the coarse English axe.” This is the oldest trick in the book, playing on the reader’s knowledge of Cromwell’s eventual fate; I like to think of it as fiction’s Titanic moment, when a proud mother bursts into her family’s humble home with the news that Our Billy has got himself a job on this famous new ship.
And while her fascination with Cromwell has been widely remarked, it’s also the novels’ greatest weakness. In CJ Sansom’s superior Tudor crime novels, Cromwell is a distant. But Sansom is a political writer and displays a much more sophisticated grasp of power; Mantel’s Cromwell is wry and self-exculpatory.
He’s a widower, ever-conscious of the death of his wife and daughters from fever and determined to further the career of his surviving son. And while it isn’t unusual in autocratic states to find sentimentality filling the gap vacated by healthy emotions, Mantel creates an enormous problem by placing the amoral Cromwell at the heart of the novels. Throughout both books, the reader is asked to put judgment aside and like the unlikeable, with queasy results as one historical figure after another is ruined, or mounts the scaffold.
It’s been remarked that the success of Mantel’s novels says a great deal about the current state of publishing. They are safe, unchallenging and flatter the reader.
They feed into the ‘great men’ theory of history, empty of politics, or analysis, and the arrival of new plotlines is weirdly comforting.
But there’s also the wider cultural context: in a climate where every Olympic gold medallist has to have an honour as well, why should novelists be the exception?
The public loves prizewinners. And two Man Bookers and a Costa are perfect symbols of a culture of excess.