Landmark award for blood-soaked Tudor saga

Hilary Mantel is the first Brit and the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice. But is it the extraordinary characters at the court of King Henry VIII that make her books so popular?

She writes in the present tense about events 400 years ago, with a style and vividness that has transported hundreds of thousands worldwide into the mind of a scheming politician at the court of King Henry VIII. Her mastery of the novelist’s art led to the chairman of the Booker Prize judges on Tuesday night describing Hilary Mantel, this year’s winner, as ‘the greatest living English prose writer’.

Giving the £50,000 award to ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, which spans the final few weeks in the short life of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s doomed second queen, has propelled Mantel into the record books. She is now both the first woman and the first British writer to win the award twice. Bodies, as the literary world calls it, is also the first sequel to win: ‘Wolf Hall’, which began the trilogy she has promised to finish within the next three years, won the Booker in 2009.

Anne Boleyn was queen for 1,000 days before being beheaded at the Tower of London, and her fate is among history’s best known stories. Hollywood movies, endless television shows, and a plethora of hokum paperbacks have already given us countless angles on the flirtatious Tudor queen, Henry’s other five wives, and the illustrious reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I. Surely no further books on this subject were needed?

Mantel claims that by choosing to tell the story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from misfortune and insignificance to become the King’s ruthless and unpopular right hand man, she has ‘made the old story new’. Readers find the high-stakes world of the court, where falling out of favour with the boss could mean losing your head, thrilling. And the author’s ability to climb inside Cromwell’s consciousness is described as ‘uncanny’.

Past mistress

But Mantel’s project – transforming the 1530s into a world the modern reader can enter as a ghost or time traveller – has its detractors. Historical fiction, so similar to the bestsellers of historical romance, is ‘not quite respectable’ said one critic this week. It relies on a laughable idea: that people in other periods were just like us but subject to different rules and wearing fancy dress.

Furthermore, historical novels are for writers who lack the imagination to come up with characters and plots of their own, say some. They are not serious. Open a historian’s work if you want to learn about the Tudor court.

‘Nonsense!’ say Mantel’s supporters. The moral ambiguities of her characters, her painstaking research and total mastery of material raise ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ far above the ordinary. If writing about events in an earlier era was good enough for great novelists like Tolstoy, Dickens and George Eliot, why be snobbish about contemporary successes?

You Decide

  1. Why are people so gripped by stories about the Tudors?
  2. ‘I cannot give the reader a definitive version,’ says Hilary Mantel. Is there such a thing, in history or fiction?

Activities

  1. Do you have a favourite book – or even film – set in the past? Why does it appeal to you?
  2. ‘Forget historical fiction: these books are an inhabitation’ said one critic. Write a short piece from inside the mind of a real character, alive or dead.

Some People Say...

“History is bunk, and historical novels are worse.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This stuff is a total waste of time.
You think? Hilary Mantel is now successful and fulfilled: her peers have granted her the highest accolades. But in interviews it becomes clear that none of it came easily. A good education and a love of history have been the making of her after a difficult start and plenty of obstacles, she says.
Well, great, but what’s that to me?
Even if you don’t enjoy her novels, take a look at what she says about making the most of your creative talents. ‘Cultivate confidence, have no shame in being bullish about your ideas and your abilities’, she advises. Also be prepared for a long journey: Mantel has been shortlisted for many years. When she finally won, it boosted sales of all the books she had written before as well.

Word Watch

Hokum
Popular and entertaining nonsense.
Thomas Cromwell
Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1532 to 1540. A blacksmith’s son, he ran away as a teenager and fought in European wars before learning banking and statecraft in Italy. After returning to England to study law, he worked for Cardinal Wolsey and became cunning and skilled enough to remain in the King’s confidence after Wolsey’s execution. He was the key figure in masterminding England’s break with the Catholic Church. Wait for Mantel’s third volume to find out what happens next...or do some research!
Consciousness
Subjectivity or awareness: the feelings, emotions and thoughts that make up the self. An easy thing to feel, but very difficult to imitate in fiction.
Historical romance
Works of fiction which offer an escape into another time period without a rigorous recreation of the differences between that world and our own. As in other romantic novels, and a classic Hollywood plot description, a lot rests on whether ‘boy meets girl, loses girl and gets girl again’.
Tudors
The Tudor kings and queens were descended from Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII after ending the Wars of the Roses between the rival families of Lancaster and York. They were Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I, who died without heirs and bequeathed the throne to the first of the Stuart Kings, James I.

Subjects

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