The Mantel Trilogy

This post’s recommendation comes from a student who has been reading the ambitious historical novels about Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel. The first in the trilogy, Wolf Hall, won the Booker Prize, as did its successor, Bring Up the Bodies. The final part, The Mirror and the Light, is due out later this year and is already tipped for a third Booker.

Alex writes the following about Wolf Hall:

“Born in Putney; son of a Blacksmith; Henry VIII’s right-hand man; beheaded in 1540. About Thomas Cromwell, not a huge amount is known. Yet Cromwell is the man at the centre of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant historical fiction trilogy which brings alive the glittering and terrifying world of the Tudors. Wolf Hall, the first of the trilogy, charts the rise and rise of Cromwell. Following Cromwell from lowborn boy to the most powerful of Henry VIII’s courtiers, it is a novel, among so many other things, about power and the fickleness of fortune. It’s 650 pages and meticulously researched but atmospheric, entertaining and poetic all the same. At times very dark, what I found most interesting was the 21st century sense of evil reflected in a 16th century story. Although Cromwell may have been recorded by history as a villain, Mantel makes him a very human and credible hero from the start of her novel, which memorably opens with Cromwell, fifteen years old, being kicked by his drunken father:

‘Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.’

You should definitely give Wolf Hall a read. But be warned, you may have difficulty putting it down.”

Wolf Hall was adapted for television for the BBC, with Mark Rylance giving a mesmerising performance as Cromwell. The indoor scenes were virtually shot in the dark, giving both a historically accurate understanding of the limited lighting in Tudor houses, but also creating a sense of murky claustrophobia. There are clips on YouTube, and the whole series can be purchased:

When writing historical fiction, what is the balance between truth and invention? Some historical scholars have been a bit sniffy about aspects of Mantel’s work. Here she is interviewed about truth and Thomas Cromwell.

And here, the historian Lucy Worsley argues that historical inaccuracies don’t really matter.

For those of you who study A Level History, it would be interesting to know what you think.

Happy reading, and thank you, Alex, for your suggestion.

And as a last thought, what about this? The Poet Laureate making an album?