On the tenth of May, 2012, an amiable video went viral across the web. It featured Britain’s Prince Charles, gamely presenting the weather on BBC Scotland. A specially doctored weather map, featuring the crown prince’s inherited Scottish palaces, was displayed behind him, giving viewers the nod that the prince was not, after all, undertaking a real job of broadcasting work, but that he rather was performing in a charming publicity stunt. The video allows the prince to play the everyman, while adding sufficient signs of his inherited privilege and wealth to ensure that the viewer understands that this is a mere performance. It is intended to enhance the prince’s man-of-the-people appeal while simultaneously inculcating deference.
Whether coincidentally or not, the video went live on the same day that Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies was published. It is the sequel to Wolf Hall, a phenomenally successful historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, one of the bully-boys and fixers of the sixteenth-century British king Henry VIII. Henry VIII, my teenage historical-fiction reading tells me, was very fond of precisely such masquerades, dressing up frequently as a humble huntsman to surprise his subjects, while at the same time ensuring that his retinue both protected him and signified his true royal identity. He might well have been amused by his descendent’s stunt, if unimpressed by the weather.
The publication of Bring Up the Bodies has been received with ecstasy and, indeed, a spot on the flagship BBC Today programme. In a wonderful critical essay on the novel, James Wood tells us just how Mantel performs the trick of letting us feel that we could, indeed, speculate about the mind of Henry VIII, as I did in the previous paragraph. His elegant textual analysis unpicks the techniques whereby Mantel makes us believe that we are witnessing history through reading the novel, as though it were unfolding before us now, without recourse to anachronisms nor to hackneyed clichés of Merrie England. Through her writer’s magic, she draws us invisibly back through four hundred years of history into Cromwell’s mind and world.
So why am I profoundly depressed by the enormous success of this series of novels? Mantel is a clever, accomplished and strange writer, who certainly deserves acclaim. Her Beyond Black is one of the creepiest novels I have read in recent years. Its wry turns of prose forced me to read on at the same time as I wanted to turn from it in fear and disgust. Here, she combines the uncanny – a medium who speaks to the dead – with the politically satirical – a journey around the soulless property boom of Blair’s Britain – with the unspeakable – a childhood harrowed by rape and abuse – to horrific effect. But where is the artistic or political merit in inducing readers to identify with her bourgeoisified Thomas Cromwell? Why should such writerly authority and ingenuity be pressed into the service of making British readers, once again, thrill to the stirring tale of the King’s Great Matter? What purpose does it serve if, once more, readers are drawn in by its false universalism to asking, will Henry VIII divorce Catherine of Aragon? Will he marry Anne Boleyn? Is she really being unfaithful to him? What literary purpose, truly, does reviving this snobbish Tudor soap opera serve?
The German writer Daniel Kehlmann writes that the pitfall of the historical novel is the sentence ‘Ha!’ said Napoleon. We’ll attack at first light. In Measuring the World he tries to evade this problem by using the German Konjunktiv I, a hard-to-translate subjunctive mode, and sprinkling the text with knowing irony. Yet his novel, like Mantel’s, is still a sleight-of-hand soap opera in which the bodies of the famed and powerful are brought up from their historical tomb and made to dance once more for our entertainment. Sebald and Adler tell us, rightly, that the panoramic view of history, which gives the illusion of showing us everything via a limited perspective from above while in fact showing nothing, is a betrayal of the dead. Returning to Prince Charles, it’s hard to believe that the acclaim for Bring Up the Bodies is not linked to the affectionate reception of the prince’s weather video. In a year when the British monarchy is carefully engineering publicity surrounding the queen’s diamond jubilee, revivals of the British royal family in literature, however clever and accomplished they may be, seem perilously close to just such twinkly propaganda as Prince Charles’s ‘Thank god it’s not a Bank Holiday weekend!’. Let’s bury the royal bodies, please, and turn to Mantel’s darker and stranger subjects to let the forgotten and repressed speak instead.