Monday, 2 May 2011

Post#172 Wolf Hall - The Time-Travelling Imagination

Today I read the last page of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and thought, "It certainly improved as it proceeded" and "That finale only works if it's used in a case where one has to think about it." In the last sentence of the book, Thomas Cromwell schedules a visit for Henry VIII to the seat of the Seymour family, Wolf Hall, which will be the beginning of his own undoing. First will come the King's love affair with Jane Seymour, then the execution of Anne Boleyn and, following the death of Jane, the failed marriage to Anne of Cleves and Cromwell's death. It's a crafty conceit in the context of the somewhat unfamiliar, but it would be pretty lame if you tried it with a story ending: "All is proceeding well; our troubles seem behind us now. Tomorrow we shall sail for New York. We have been fortunate enough to secure berths on the new vessel, RMS Titanic."

Apart from that quibble, Wolf Hall is a very engaging yarn. The best type of historical fiction is that in which one begins to lose track of the fact that it is told in a voice which, although it may be buttressed by diligent research, is a figment. Critics have said that Mantel has provided a more sympathetic view of Cromwell than the familiar histories. I think this is because the part of his life which is treated of is not as difficult to come to terms with as that which follows. The persecutions and executions ramp up after the Boleyn marriage.

There is a scope in the further reaches of the past to mould the personality of the imagined historical figure into a form pleasing to the author. Is there a harm in this? Yes, if evildoers are presented as virtuous and the virtuous as evil. But we'll never know will we?


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont said...

I read this last year and thought it very good, though I'm not normally that sympathetic to historic fiction.

Retarius said...

I'm quite enthusiastic about historical fiction of the "hard" type. The "bodice-rippers" don't do it for me...but then they usually contain very little ripping. I combine this with a taste for science fiction by pursuing alternate history themes.