George Eliot considered the writing of historical fiction “a task which can only be justified by the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius,” requiring “a form of imaginative power [which] must always be among the very rarest, because it demands as much accurate and minute knowledge as creative vigour.” Novels of “the modern antique school have a ponderous, a leaden kind of fatuity,” she complained, “under which we groan.” The extraordinary difficulty of the genre is testified to by her own attempt “to reanimate the past” in Romola, the only one of her novels set back more than a couple of generations. She began writing Romola as a young woman and ended it an old one, she said herself, and having worked through the novel recently in my graduate seminar, I know that the effort it demands can make it feel as if it is having the same effect on its readers. To be sure, Romola does have its thrilling moments, and it certainly demonstrates both “accurate and minute knowledge” and “creative vigour”–just not always at the same time, or always in harmony with each other. And there’s the whole “cheese to the macaroni” moment…but I digress from my main point, which is that really good historical fiction is really hard to write, and thus really rare to read.
This brings me, of course, to Hilary Mantel. Like so many others, I admired Wolf Hall a great deal, not least because it was so unlike what I have come to expect of run-of-the-mill contemporary historical fiction. Unsentimental in its approach, economical in its prose, uncannily sideways in its perspective, Wolf Hall evoked the ‘difference’ of the past without condescending to us with faux antiquities or excessive explanation. Its momentum was achieved by Mantel’s gift for the evocative moment or detail, and by her tacit confidence that her reading audience could handle complexity without handholding. Rather than yoking her narrative to one of the reliable moneymakers of the period, she chose a man of some principle but also much ambition, who not only loves and hates but befriends, alienates, and outmaneuvers. Then she had the courage to portray him as neither the hero nor the attendant lord, but as a man at work and at home, a man being, simply, himself–or, rather, never simply himself but always intensely himself, and thus, in many specific ways, not Everyman, and not us. Mantel’s Cromwell is (in the spirit of, say, Scott’s Fergus MacIvor) a man of his time, shaped and motivated by currents of ideas, by situations, by contexts and opportunities, by values and beliefs, that are not universal. The slight but persistent sense of disorientation created by the odd point of view Mantel adopts for the novel, putting us at Cromwell’s shoulder, in his mind but not of it, helps to keep us at an appropriate distance from that other time towards which we can, after all, only reach out imaginatively but never truly enter. But by not providing elaborate passages of exposition, Mantel also allows us to take that other place for granted, as a reality we can, provisionally, inhabit. We aren’t told about historical trends or events–the shift, for instance, from sacred to secular power–but we are there as they are happening. It’s a risky strategy, a difficult balance: not enough information, after all, and we’d just be confused, but too much information and we might disengage.; not enough excitement or pathos, and we might cease caring, but tip into histrionics and the book’s literary integrity would be compromised. The critical and popular success of Wolf Hall (and sucha long book, too, as so many readers seem compelled to remark!) speaks to Mantel’s achievement.
Many of the same qualities and techniques are evident in Mantel’s earlier novel A Place of Greater Safety, particularly the lack of sentimentality and the sharpness of the writing, which is at once prolix and poignant, even uncomfortable–if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed. (I seem to be finding my reading especially, if only metaphorically, tactile lately.) A Place of Greater Safety also, like Wolf Hall, builds momentum gradually by developing our relationship, with not just one complicated protagonist this time, but with three, the revolutionary triumverate of Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. Again, there are neither heroes nor villains in this crowd, though each has his heroic, as well as his villainous, moments. (Desmoulins, beautiful, erratic, alternately effervescent and enervated, and writing, always writing, seemed to me a particularly brilliant characterization.) And just as Wolf Hall only incidentally informs its readers about the causes and contexts of the Reformation, A Place of Greater Safety eschews the potential pedagogical role of the historical novel. At the end of its 750 pages I really didn’t feel much better informed about the events or even the political and philosophical stakes of the French Revolution than I was already. Here again, Mantel adopts a slantwise approach: not altogether personal, not just the ‘human story’ of the men and women who lived it, but not abstract, theoretical, or fully contextualized either. Here’s a rare but characteristic ‘explanatory’ passage, terse and ominously proleptic:
Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman of the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’
There’s as little exposition here as in Wolf Hall, and the overall impression is one of a great deal going on that wasn’t well understood by, and certainly wasn’t under the control of, even the major participants. But Mantel only very rarely steps in to explain to us what they can’t know, or even, most of the time, what they do know: we get fragments of debates, pamphlets, laws, and contexts, in a kind of swirl of partial information and misinformation. I found this effect frustrating at times: I wanted to know just what the Girondins or the Cordelier Club stood for, what (if anything) was accomplished at and by the Tennis Court Oath or the storming of the Bastille. But it isn’t really a book about that. Though her people are intensely political, the novel is primarily personal, more so than Wolf Hall, with more emphasis on relationships, but without the sentimental premise that, for instance, home is the ‘place of greater safety’–or, if it is so, or if it feels so, that safety is temporary, or illusory. It’s a novel, then about the personal side of politics, or about political personalities, and above all it emphasizes the ways politics, especially revolutionary politics, are ultimately antithetical to personal loyalties. Principles have consequences to which even cherished friendships may ultimately need to be sacrificed. “From now on,” Louis Suleau tells Desmoulins, “personal loyalty will count for very little in people’s lives,” and we feel the inexorable truth of this statement as the Revolutionaries turn, eventually, on each other.
It’s tribute to Mantel’s peculiar gifts and strategies as a storyteller that she assembles an even less attractive crew here than in Wolf Hall and yet what matters is not how appealing they are but how compelling they are, and how intensely themselves, so that by the final chapter, as the Revolution devours its children, I didn’t care who they were, really, only that they were going to die, after my having known them for so long. Mantel manages their end (known from the novel’s beginning because, after all, it is history) without any of the tumbril sentimentality the inevitable Dickens comparisons on the jacket blurb might lead us to anticipate. None of the characters comes across as heroic or noble, but they have such great vitality (even Robespierre, with his tedious incorruptibility), that their deaths felt like great losses–losses, quite simply, of life, of the energy and lust for life, for words, and for action, that characterized them all. Again, a sample of her terse, epigrammatic style:
There is a point beyond which–convention and imagination dictate–we cannot go; perhaps it’s here, when the carts decant onto the scaffold their freight, now living and breathing flesh, soon to be dead meat. Danton imagines that, as the greatest of the condemned, he will be left until last, with Camille beside him. He thinks less of eternity then of how to keep his friend’s body and soul together for the fifteen minutes before the National Razor separates them.
But of course it is not like that. Why should it be as you imagine?
And the famous final flourish:
He watches each death, until he is tutored to his own.
‘Show my head to the people. It’s worth the trouble.’
In that predictable Dickens allusion, the Library Journal says he “did it first in A Tale of Two Cities.” But Dickens got his information from an earlier and far, far better, far more revolutionary, account of the Revolution: Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 The French Revolution. There’s no overt reference to Carlyle in A Place of Greater Safety, but I feel Mantel must have read it and learned from it that the only way to approach the reality of that wild, idealistic, turbulent, violent period was through story-telling that itself embraces confusion. Her book is far more orderly than Carlyle’s, of course: you couldn’t write The French Revolution today, I think, and indeed it was rightly felt and understood to be extraordinary in its own time. Just to give a sense of how crazy and yet compelling it is, here’s Carlyle’s version of Danton’s execution:
Danton carried a high look in the Death-cart. Not so Camille: it is but one week, and all is so topsyturvied; angel Wife left weeping; love, riches, Revolutionary fame, left all at the Prison-gate; carnivorous Rabble now howling round. Palpable and yet incredible; like a madman’s dream! Camille struggles and writhes; his shoulders shuffle the loose coat off them, which hangs knotted, the hands tied: ‘Calm, my friend’, said Danton; ‘heed not that vile canaille (laissez la cette vile canaille).’ At the foot of the Scaffold, Danton was heard to ejaculate: ‘O my Wife, my well-beloved. I shall never see thee more then!’–but, interrupting himself: ‘Danton, no weakness!’ He said to Herault-Sechelles stepping forward to embrace him: ‘Our heads will meet there‘, in the Headsman’s sack. His last words were to Samson the Headsman himself: ‘Thou wilt show my head to the people; it is worth showing.’
So passes, like a gigantic mass, of valour, ostentation, fury, affection, and wild revolutionary force and manhood, this Danton, to his unknown home. He was of Arcis-sur-Aube; born of ‘good farmer people’ there. He had many sins; but one worst sin he had not, that of Cant. No hollow Formalist, deceptive and self-deceptive, ghastly to the natural sense, was this; but a very Man: with all his dross he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself.
This is history as philosophy and prophecy, which is not Mantel’s history. Her theory of the revolution, as far as she offers one, is economic (“the price of bread”). But she too feels, or at least conveys, the urgency of understanding that whatever it means, if anything, history is lived (as Carlyle said in another context) “not by state-papers and abstractions of men” but by “very” men.