Even by the standards of Man Booker prize winners, “Wolf Hall” is a phenomenon. By Christmas last year, it had become the fastest-selling winner ever. By July it had sold 215,000 copies in hardback, making it Britain’s seventh-highest-selling hardback novel of the decade. When the paperback appeared in the spring, it shot to the top of the general fiction chart—a Man Booker first. Translation rights have been sold in 30 countries, and “Wolf Hall” has been a bestseller in both Canada and America, where it won the National Book Critics Circle award and had a print run of 200,000 copies. In Britain, along with the £50,000 Man Booker, it scooped the new £25,000 Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, as well as being shortlisted for both the Orange and the Costa fiction prizes.
These figures tell only part of the story of the novel’s extraordinary success. As well as capturing an enormous public with a seemingly insatiable appetite for Tudor history (“Booker prize is won by Henry VIII”, ran one headline), “Wolf Hall” has changed the image of historical fiction, making it, according to Paul Lay, editor of History Today, “finally respectable”.
To be fair, the ground had been shifting for some time. Over the past decade or so, Pat Barker’s trilogy about the first world war, Miranda Hearn’s “Nelson’s Daughter”, Louise Welsh’s “Tamburlaine Must Die”—to name just a few—have challenged perceptions of historical fiction as a sub-genre, used by authors like Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy to serve up comfort food. Of the six books shortlisted for the Booker last year, five were set in the past. And when the Lost Man Booker was awarded in May, it went to J.G. Farrell’s “Troubles”, set in Ireland in 1919.
But “Wolf Hall” has been decisive, and it seems no coincidence that it was last October, six months after its publication, that History Today broke with long tradition and began to review historical fiction for the first time. “Wolf Hall” had provided final proof of the heights that can be reached when an informed imagination balances historical evidence with human empathy, bringing a contemporary sensibility to bear on the past. There’s no fustian for Hilary Mantel; no women stepping down Cheapside, wimples a-waggle. Instead, she drops into her narrative glancing references to the Frankfurt book fair, and to young men with pitbulls wandering the back streets of London.
Not everyone welcomes this change in the weather. Antony Beevor, the historian and bestselling author of “Stalingrad”, says he cannot comment specifically on “Wolf Hall”, because he has not read it and has no desire to. But he deplores what he calls “histo-tainment” and “faction-creep”, and considers “completely corrupting” the tendency of a Wikipedia age to shape the truth to its own ends, and to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. He has no problem with the roman à clef—he admires Justin Cartwright’s “The Song Before it is Sung”, which explores the friendship between Adam von Trott and Isaiah Berlin, under fictional names—but a novel which uses the names of real historical figures is, he believes, dangerous. “And the better the novel, the more dangerous it is,” he says, “because readers are more likely to think it’s true. It’s like looking at a very skilfully restored ancient vase: you just can’t tell what’s original any more.”
One response to this would be to point out that Mantel has a passion for the truth—“I make things up most reluctantly,” she says, “I am not cavalier”—and that, in writing “Wolf Hall”, she was actually driven by a desire to set the record straight, to correct public misconceptions of Thomas Cromwell as a pantomime villain, and to show that Thomas More was more flawed and less saintly than Robert Bolt’s “A Man for all Seasons” had led us to believe. Another is to ask whether any writer, by switching off the imagination and sticking to the facts, can ever hope to arrive at absolute historical truth. Paul Lay, whose own youthful passion for “real” history was fed by the novels of Robert Graves and Mary Renault, doubts it: “History, by its nature,” he says, “is a very uncertain practice.”
For some historians, “Wolf Hall” has provided not just entertainment but intellectual impetus. Writing recently in History Today, Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of biographies of Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer, and most recently of a monumental history of Christianity, revealed that Mantel’s “startlingly accurate” recreation of Henry VIII’s England had spurred him on to embark on a full-scale biography of Thomas Cromwell. He had, he admitted, “gasped at the detail which Mantel knew and had woven into her story, without any feeling of ostentation”; and he is impatient for the sequel. He is not alone.
Picture Credit: Diver Aguilar