Why Does the Historical Novel Need to be Rescued?

Hilary Mantel has won two Booker Prizes for her re-imagination of the court of Henry VIII in Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, the first two installments in a planned trilogy narrating ...

Hilary Mantel has won two Booker Prizes for her re-imagination of the court of Henry VIII in Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, the first two installments in a planned trilogy narrating one of the most famous and most represented episodes in English history. Reviews of both books inevitably begin with a nod toward their genre—the historical novel, described by James Wood as “a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness.” Most critics acknowledge the embarrassing reputation of historical novels before quickly moving on to reassure us of Mantel’s genius. But it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the problematic genre, from its nineteenth-century incarnations to the present day. Why does the modern historical novel so often seem like a failed project, whether in aesthetic or political terms, and how are Mantel’s novels different?

Not every novel set in the past counts as a “historical novel.” To do so, a work must also depict world-changing public events like wars, natural disasters, or political struggles. The historical novel’s cast of characters will often include eminent historical figures, sometimes as secondary characters. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, Napoleon appears intermittently as a vain and overly confident little man fastidious about his toilette. The protagonists in historical novels are typically invented fictional characters, obscure rather than public, whose lives interweave with more famous real events and figures. These conventions are familiar from Charles Dickens’s much-taught A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution, replete with memorable heroes and villains—the self-sacrificing Sydney Carton, the vengeful Madame Defarge, knitting in code—enacting the melodramatic adventures Dickens invented amid the real-life storming of the Bastille and the gore of the guillotine.

The nineteenth-century writer who most defined the genre of historical fiction, however, was not Dickens but Walter Scott. Taking up various incidents in Scottish history, Scott’s novels powerfully influenced writers across Europe and America, from Balzac and Dumas in France to James Fenimore Cooper in America. In a study of Scott’s literary reputation, Ann Rigney notes that his Waverley (1814), usually considered the first historical novel, inspired the naming of twenty-two different American towns and a street or avenue in most major American cities. Yet Scott’s tremendous reputation in the nineteenth century did not forestall what we might call the first failure of the historical novel: a century after his death in 1832, his novels had already plummeted into obscurity. “People don’t read Scott any more,” says a young man disdainfully in Virginia Woolf’s 1927 modernist novel To the Lighthouse. Today scholars continue the conversation, but outside of academia Scott lives on mostly in monuments and street signs.

By the early twentieth century, then, the historical novel (as written by Scott) came to embody a certain kind of nineteenth-century aesthetic that no longer appealed. His picturesque scenes of the Scottish Highlands, once exotic, today seem ho-hum, and the creaking narrative machinery and cumbersome dialogue characteristic of most Scott novels don’t help things. The aesthetic qualities we prize in literary novels now are often aligned with a kind of tautness or conciseness that Scott’s novels, and historical novels in general, tend to lack. Reimagining the past often involves a lot of research that authors are eager to show off, in scrupulous detail. Scott was aware of the problem, inventing a fake, stuffy historian, “the Rev. Dr. Dryasdust,” who is the dedicatee of many of his historical novels, and whom, in a running joke, the author can never satisfy with his apparently wild and romantic takes on history.

The aesthetic qualities we prize in literary novels now are often aligned with a kind of tautness or conciseness that Scott’s novels, and historical novels in general, tend to lack.

For all of Scott’s attempts to distance himself from pedantry, though, the historical novel’s mandate to create an illusion of “the real” sometimes bogs down his books with Dryasdust details, offered at the expense of characterization and emotional heft. A character in an 1847 Baudelaire novella complained about Scott, “Oh, that tedious author! A dusty exhumer of chronicles! A fastidious mass of descriptions of bric-a-brac, a heap of old and castoff things of every sort—armor, tableware, furniture, gothic inns, and melodramatic castles where lifeless mannequins stalk about, dressed in leotards and gaudy doublets.”1 Not coincidentally, historical novels in the nineteenth century emerged alongside realist novels, and the two projects often shared similar techniques, employing what Roland Barthes called “the reality effect”: they describe in detail a welter of seemingly unimportant objects—tableware and leotards, for example—merely to convince the reader that such a scene might actually have transpired. Today, however, the undue length and unwieldy forms that result from such conscientious realism don’t quite fit with contemporary, more streamlined literary sensibilities.

Surprisingly enough, Scott’s greatest defender in the twentieth century was a Marxist critic, György Lukács, even though Scott himself was a Tory of the Old School. Lukács praised the politics of Scott’s mild-mannered heroes, such as the eponymous protagonist of Waverley, because he thought that their very vacuity and indecisiveness allowed them to channel the larger forces of history unimpeded, thus revealing how conflict between different social groups drives historical change. Despite Lukács’s praise, however, later audiences have not exactly embraced a hero whom Scott himself, writing in 1814, called “a sneaking imbecile.” Scott was motivated not by Marxist ideals but by a desire to promote values of tolerance and moderation; hence Waverley literally “wavers” between two sides of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.

Waverley’s suppression of initiative in its main character in order to advance a political message resonates to this day. Historical novels, both classic and contemporary, often weigh in on the moral problems of the past, leading to an unfortunate penchant for didacticism. Authors today often return to history with a wish to repair the injustices of the past, endowing women, servants, Native Americans, and slaves with a powerful social consciousness. While the political message is uplifting, the aesthetic result is usually disappointing. To select a somewhat random recent example: Geraldine Brooks’s Caleb’s Crossing features a brave heroine in 1660s Massachusetts who disobeys her Puritan father to sneak off to a rendezvous with a handsome Native American, impetuously pursuing her quest for knowledge and religious freedom. As one reviewer, Deirdre Donahue, sums up the result: “gender inequality (bad), religious intolerance (bad), racism (bad), Native American wisdom (good) and evil white men (guess).” When characters from the past behave according to the ideals of our contemporary moment—multicultural, knowledge-positive, open-minded—the result is a flattened novelistic world, with moral values clearly laid out like a chess board. This high-minded, wish-driven history appears in middlebrow historical novels, but it also appears in more mass-cultural variations. According to the recent book and movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, for instance, slavery wasn’t perpetuated by men and women of the American South but by vampires; slavery itself, as it turns out, was just a front for vampire meals. Rather than dramatizing more complex and off-putting moral conundrums, some historical fiction chooses to create a more palatable account, however improbable or anachronistic that version might be. Not only do these fictions distort the way that human experience is embedded in its historical moment, but they also allow readers to feel a smug assurance that political oppression is safely a thing of the past.

By contrast, some of the wishes we bring to history are less politically forward-thinking. Instead of lecturing us about the inequalities of the past, historical novels can also inspire nostalgia for the good old days of aristocrats, kings, or Southern belles. In “costume dramas,” elaborate clothes on both women and men can become shorthand for royal or genteel luxury, allowing readers or viewers to insert themselves into roles of privilege. Other recent popular representations of Henry VIII’s court like The Tudors or The Other Boleyn Girl share with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a fantasy of time travel back to earlier days, in which readers might identify with princesses or Southern belles pursuing leisured lives while cared for by an army of barely visible servants or slaves.

Both progressive and  conservative political fantasies have tied the historical novel to a kind of shameless crowd-pleasing, a mass appeal that overlaps at times with the bodice-ripping sexuality inseparable from the romance genre.

Each era encodes its own desires into history. From a contemporary Western middle-class perspective, the idea of having a servant or two to carry out household chores might seem appealing. For many nineteenth-century writers, the most desirable period in history was the Middle Ages; in the medieval moment, before the onslaught of industrialism, knights and ladies were seen to behave chivalrously and honorably rather than exploit each other for profit. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Charles Reade’s best-selling The Cloister and the Hearth, and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame each contributed to a nostalgic vogue for all things medieval, still visible today in the Gothic-inspired nineteenth-century buildings scattered across Europe. Nineteenth-century English medievalism, while aesthetically pleasing, most often attached itself to a conservative politics of feudalism—inviting misty-eyed visions of golden times when serfs could depend upon noble lords to care for them, unlike apparently more rapacious middle-class captains of industry. Despite Lukács’s optimistic assessment, the classic historical novel has often been linked to conservative political projects such as nation-building and imperial expansion—appropriate themes for a century defined by the emergence of modern nation-states and European empires. Franco Moretti notes that a typical nineteenth-century historical novel concludes with mismatched men and women from different clans uniting in marriage, thus symbolizing a healed and unified nation—and conveniently sweeping under the rug any disempowered, marginal peoples left out of the power structure.2

Both kinds of political fantasies—the progressive and the conservative—have tied the historical novel to a kind of shameless crowd-pleasing, a mass appeal that overlaps at times with the bodice-ripping sexuality inseparable from the romance genre. The sterile settings and mundane workplace routines of modern Western life make for a stark contrast with the world offered by the historical romance, where everything is messy, bloody, violent, sexualized, and filled with the bizarre or the singular—séances, circuses, streetwalkers, weird specimens in jars, swords, plagues, et cetera. Many of the wishes that we bring to history today inevitably locate us in the realm of the sensational and the mass-cultural, which would seem to preclude the highbrow, the formal, or the literary. The wholesale commodification of historical novels has tended to align them with a feminized “genre fiction,” congealed into static formulae and overfamiliar character types. That historical romances are most often written by women, for women, no doubt adds another sort of black mark to the reputation of historical fiction more broadly. The gendering of all of the problems with historical fiction seems unfair, though, since these problems also bedeviled Victorian historical novels, many of which were written by men. It is only in the twentieth century that the genre has become so aligned with women, a process that can be tied directly to its mass-market commodification. Meanwhile, interestingly, when the wish fulfillment follows conventions perceived as masculine—with extreme depictions of violence and transgressive sexuality—the sensationalist products tend to be hailed as literary; witness the ardent critical reception of Jonathan Littell’s Nazi-shocker The Kindly Ones.

Generally speaking, the tarnished position of historical fiction today makes the acclaim received by the historical novels of Hilary Mantel that much more remarkable. Both Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies feature Thomas Cromwell as their hero, an unusual choice for a sympathetic protagonist given the number of deaths he is known to have caused during the English Reformation. In traditional accounts of the court intrigue surrounding Henry VIII, Cromwell was the king’s “fixer,” the henchman who paved the way for Henry to divorce his first wife, Queen Katherine, and marry Anne Boleyn. In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell’s ruthless amorality contrasts with the dedicated principles of archbishop Thomas More, who in the name of his Catholic beliefs sacrifices himself rather than accommodate Henry’s sinful pathway. Mantel’s narrative embrace of Cromwell is itself a revisionist challenge to accepted histories.

One can thus read Mantel’s novels, interestingly enough, as a rebuff to the conservative nostalgia for ye olde times that defined many classic historical novels.

In an interview, Mantel notes that Cromwell’s reputation after his death changed over time, from Elizabethan hero to Victorian villain. Nineteenth-century historians, blinded by the strict class prejudices of their own day, she says, “couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a member of the lower orders rising so high in the hierarchy. There was also a sentimentality about the medieval world, with Cromwell seen as one of its destroyers. This idea persists today.”3 The Victorian penchant for medieval knights and ladies, as it turns out, was also responsible for the blackening of Cromwell’s character into the present day.

One can thus read Mantel’s novels, interestingly enough, as a rebuff to the conservative nostalgia for ye olde times that defined many classic historical novels. The rise of bourgeois modernity can in fact be mapped onto the rise to power of a sixteenth-century nobody, a blacksmith’s son, who ascends to become the right-hand man of a king. Mantel turns medieval nostalgia on its head while securing our sympathies for this misbegotten protagonist. The political stakes of this rewriting become apparent in a revealing scene from Wolf Hall, when Cromwell forces an earl into relinquishing his legal, lovesick claims on Anne Boleyn so that she can become Henry’s new queen. The earl, Harry Percy, blusters about his armies and his ancient titles, but Cromwell controls Percy’s finances and takes a merciless view of Percy’s claims to rank and property:

How can he [Cromwell] explain to him [the earl]? The world is not run from where he thinks … [but] from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west … Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun …

“I picture you without money and title,” he [Cromwell] says. “I picture you in a hovel, wearing homespun, and bringing home a rabbit for the pot. I picture your lawful wife Anne Boleyn skinning and jointing this rabbit. I wish you every happiness.”

The scene ends with Percy defeated, slumped over the table in tears.

Though the earl might be within his rights to make his claim on Anne Boleyn, and might even be sympathetic in his lovelorn ardor, from another perspective—Cromwell’s, and ours through his eyes—Percy is a holdover from a dying era, standing for an outdated, provincial, and aristocratic past limited by its failure to imagine beyond its own castle walls. Cromwell, meanwhile, is the bearer of a new world order, a capitalist system of world-traveling, cosmopolitan merchants and traders, empowered by financial rather than military might. Although the scene depicts Cromwell intimidating and humiliating Percy, we still sympathize with the enforcer who slaps down the arrogant aristocrat, and take some pleasure in witnessing this perfectly executed comeuppance.

Cromwell, in other words, is no Waverly. Unlike Scott’s gutless protagonists, Cromwell is a master manipulator, his character type that of “the self-made man”: starting out as a poor village boy abused by his father, he runs off to join the army and then reappears twenty-seven years later as a successful London merchant and lawyer, speaking at least six European languages. We root for Cromwell because he is smarter and more talented than the privileged, hapless lords and ladies whom he manipulates. Though Mantel bases her Cromwell on historical facts gleaned from a modest number of contemporary sources, the small amount really known about his historical character allows her to create a morally ambiguous figure whose life follows a familiar and (we might guess) ultimately tragic arc. Much of Wolf Hall’s drama is generated by its story of an outsider assimilating into the Court’s closed circle of power.

At every step, Mantel invites us to understand and sympathize with Cromwell’s political decisions—even as the moral value of those decisions becomes increasingly tenuous across the two novels.

The moral valences of Cromwell’s ascent are complicated: in the first instance, his low birth aligns him with “the people” and a democratic politics of the nation. He wants to spare England from the Civil War that will likely ensue if Henry does not bear a male heir. He enacts a democratic vision in his own household, taking in stray boys who resemble his own younger self. We admire Cromwell in his role as implicit bearer of the Reformation and modernity, ushering England into a less hierarchical age symbolized by a Bible translated into the vernacular. At every step, Mantel invites us to understand and sympathize with Cromwell’s political decisions—even as the moral value of those decisions becomes increasingly tenuous across the two novels. Unlike historical fiction overtly driven by wish fulfillment, Mantel’s novels offer no easy answers about the lessons of history, nor even about who the heroes or villains are. The saintly Thomas More, Catholic defender of the faith, here seems more like an obstinate and blood-thirsty fanatic; King Henry is capricious and at times ridiculous; Anne Boleyn is a conniving, heartless snake. Among this crew, Cromwell’s forthrightness appeals. Why shouldn’t he be the hero of these novels? He is nobly invested in abstract ideals such as “England” and faithfulness to one’s king, even when both dreams in actuality fail to live up to their promise.

The moral ambiguity surrounding Cromwell grows strongest at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, when four men are sentenced to die for committing adultery with Anne Boleyn—even though it appears that their only real crime is to have become Cromwell’s enemies. (Even here we might sympathize, since Cromwell in effect murders these men not for personal gain but to exact revenge on behalf of his wronged, beloved mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.) Anne herself falls too, her wiles no match for Cromwell’s loyalty to a fickle king. We have enjoyed a vicarious pleasure in watching the man of no origins climb into the halls of power by his wits alone, but how far are we willing to follow him? When is political violence justified, and what is the moral calculus of bodily harm?

Violence seems to be the one constant uniting historical fiction, past and present. Former times were often bloodier than our own (in the West), and returns to those hang-in-the-balance moments of history inevitably feature high body counts. Yet whereas more sensationalist novels use history as an excuse to glory in blood-soaked scenes of war and Gothic acts of torture—allowing us to distance ourselves from the ignorant people of the past while still satiating our taste for violence—more thoughtful novels see in the bloody events of history an opportunity to meditate more broadly on philosophies of belief, loyalty, and the infliction of pain. On this last point, Mantel’s novels wander into murky territory indeed. We know that Cromwell supervises the rebuilding of the Tower of London, transforming it into a terrifying symbol of the king’s power, but we never witness him physically torture a witness or assault a victim. The rack is alluded to but its use never shown. Mantel doesn’t want to lose moral support for this odd hero by having him do something that a reader would never forgive. It’s the headman from France who takes care of Anne Boleyn in the end. Yes, we might blame Cromwell squarely for her death, but the hero is allowed enough distance from the scene—watching it in a crowd—that his own culpability is mitigated, obscured. The reader feels all the mixed emotions that Cromwell does during the scene of her death, horrified by the violence, but also a little bit glad that an enemy has been bested, and that this vain, scheming woman is receiving her due. Our hands are bloody, too.

One of the most unusual aspects of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies is their method of narration. While historical novels often pile on description to create their reality effects—think of Scott’s leotards—Mantel eschews an omniscient narrator who might catalogue those details for us. Instead, the novels are narrated in a close third person, so painfully close that the telling is more intimate than it would be in first person, because this narrator penetrates Cromwell’s inner thoughts, his unspoken world. As a result, the books present us with a confusion of “he”s; Cromwell rarely specifies to himself the object of his thought, be it the king or a member of his household, and the reader often has to puzzle over which “he” is which. The effect is not quite stream of consciousness, but a reality effect engendered by thought, feeling, dreams, and psychology rather than by description of externals. This narrative choice itself implies a philosophy of history, since events are related not by a confident objective narrator but through the subjective thoughts of one flawed man.

We would never be tempted to label this history “romantic.” Yet, on a subtler note, the novels offer a feminist insight by hinting at similarities between the plights of Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.

The gender equation of these novels also appears to have been shaped with an awareness of previous conventions. Because historical fiction has so often seemed a feminized genre, especially in the twentieth century, it is tempting to see Mantel writing directly against that reputation. Cromwell is strikingly masculinist, even macho, with his soldier’s build and murderer’s face. His outlook is pragmatic and unsentimental; after the early death of his wife, he ignores the overtures of women so as to stay focused on the king’s violent business. We would never be tempted to label this history “romantic.” Yet, on a subtler note, the novels offer a feminist insight by hinting at similarities between the plights of Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. Both are devious manipulators of questionable legitimacy who work their way into the king’s good graces, despite obstacles of low birth (Cromwell) and gender (Boleyn). “A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell,” he thinks to himself in Wolf Hall. Like Cromwell, Anne must try to advance in a society that offers her few possible sources of power beyond her own resources—in her case, her sexuality. History has never seemed less sexy than when Anne uses her body to draw the king to her. With each new body part that she allows the king to touch, Cromwell receives a cynical report from her catty ladies-in-waiting. Sex in these novels is almost purely instrumental, a shorthand for power: intimacy with world-historical consequences. As Cromwell observes in Wolf Hall: “This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.” This moment of reflection from Cromwell could serve as Mantel’s retort to those who think historical fiction is just an excuse for lascivious bedroom scenes. Bedroom scenes, it turns out, might be just as consequential as writing laws or signing treaties.

While Mantel avoids many of the pitfalls troubling the modern historical novel, in the end it is probably too pat to declare that she single-handedly “rescues” the genre. Other novelists before her have figured out ways to reinvent the tired clichés of history writing. It is useful, though, to consider why these novels, with their two Booker Prizes, have touched such a nerve with reading audiences. If each era brings its own desires to history, so too does fear play a commanding role. Cromwell’s story turns out to be as much a tale of our own time as it is of the sixteenth century; today, too, Western governments are radically abridging the rights of citizens, sometimes using torture, in the face of perceived threats to national security. The moral conundrums of yesteryear are still with us, with no easy solutions in sight. icon

  1. Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen and La Fanfarlo, translated by Raymond N. Mackenzie (Hackett, 2008), p. 111.
  2. Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel: 1800–1900 (Verso, 1999), p. 40.
  3. “Making it New: Sarah O’Reilly talks to Hilary Mantel.” The interview appears in a postscript (“P.S.”) to the Fourth Estate paperback edition of Wolf Hall (2010).