Hilary Mantel - great literature or snobbish period soap operas?

By Joan Smith

Author Hilary Mantel.  Photo / AP
Author Hilary Mantel. Photo / AP

Tudor England is a sure-fire winner in fiction terms. It's just produced an unprecedented triple prize-winner in the shape of Hilary Mantel, who has bagged the Costa Book Award after winning the Man Booker twice for her novels on Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.

I'm sure Mantel's publishers have high hopes for the third volume in the trilogy, which will cover Cromwell's role in the King's short-lived marriage to Anne of Cleves and his execution.

Let me be frank: I find the success of these books totally 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 Britain today. Is she so much more accomplished than Ian McEwan, who's won the Booker only once? Or Zadie Smith, who's been shortlisted but never actually won? It isn't even as if the Cromwell novels are her best work; she's always had a taste for soap opera, which led her to write an endless early novel about the French Revolution, and that book's faults are all too evident in what will soon be her Cromwell trilogy.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are once again soap operas in period costume, piling up events with such speed that the overall effect is emotionally blunting. They're like plotlines in The Archers, where one drama grips everyone until something just as compelling pops up to take its place, whether it's Nigel's fall from the roof or Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon (Katherine in Mantel's spelling). The disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's repudiation of Catherine, his break with Rome, his marriage to Anne Boleyn; all of these canter past like the latest episode in a long-running drama series, beautifully costumed and with as little emotional impact.

Bring Up the Bodies centres on a hugely dramatic event in English history, 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, so to speak, 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. Such clunky devices deflect attention from the genuine horrors of Henry's reign, which has parallels with 20th-century dictatorships, including the use of torture and networks of informers. If it seems unfair to view the early 16th century through this prism, it has to be said that's exactly what Mantel does, combining period slang with some snappy and very modern-sounding dialogue.

And while her fascination with Cromwell has been widely remarked, it's also the novel's greatest weakness.

In C.J. Sansom's superior Tudor crime novels, Cromwell is distant and scary. But then Sansom is a political writer and he displays a much more sophisticated grasp of power.

Mantel's Cromwell is wry and self-exculpatory, able to justify anything by recalling his early life in a rough area of south London.

He's also a crashing snob. And Mantel creates an enormous problem by placing the amoral - to put it politely - Cromwell at the heart of the novels. The reader is asked to put judgment aside and like the unlikable.

It has already been remarked that the success of Mantel's novels says a great deal about the present state of publishing. The books are safe, unchallenging and flatter the reader, who starts to feel like an instant expert on Tudor history.

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 prize-winners, and two Man Bookers and a Costa are perfect symbols of a culture of excess.

- Independent

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