Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Bringing Up the Bodies" and historical fiction

Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal to Henry VIII and chief secretary to the King until his downfall after arranging Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves. Copy of a painting by Hans Holbein, National Portrait Gallery, London

The annual “best of 2012” book lists are already materializing, and prominent among the fiction entries is Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel—Part II of her award-winning trilogy on Cromwell and his crucial role at the court of Henry VIII. An extensive profile of Mantel in the October 15 issue of The New Yorker pointed up the gratifying scrupulousness of her research, even as it praised how brilliantly she conjured Cromwell's thought processes.
She couldn’t always be sure that a character was in the place she said he was in at the time she put him there, but she spent endless hours making sure that he wasn’t definitely somewhere else. “Once you play around with history, it trips a whole load of consequences,” she says. “You know the TV drama ‘The Tudors’? Well, they decided that it was a bit too complicated if Henry had two sisters, so they rolled them up into one. But then that sister had to marry somebody, and now they’re in trouble, because really his younger sister married the old King of France, but at a previous stage they decided that the old King of France was boring, so they had brought in Francis I early. But then, oops, she can’t marry Francis I, so we have to invent a king for her to marry! So it gets more and more ridiculous.” She says, “I cannot describe to you what revulsion it inspires in me when people play around with the facts. If I were to distort something just to make it more convenient or dramatic, I would feel I’d failed as a writer. If you understand what you’re talking about, you should be drawing the drama out of real life, not putting it there, like icing on a cake.” 
The Showtime extravaganza The Tudors led viewers to believe that Henry's irascible behavior toward the end of his life may have been due to an ulcerous leg injury that never healed properly, but information in City of Sin: London and Its Vices by Catharine Arnold points to the possible effects of syphilis as well. According to Arnold, Henry blamed his bouts of impotence on Anne, claimed she was consorting with devils when she miscarried, and trumped up charges that she had sex with several courtiers—despite the fact that they were exclusively homosexual. Anne's own brother was charged with incest, and her stillborn baby produced as evidence of an "unnatural union." Her page was also tortured until he falsely claimed to have slept with her. What's a poor Queen to do?? When the King and the holder of the nation's purse strings are both out to get you, it's curtains for you!
Above: Anne Boleyn, attributed to John Hoskins; Portrait of Henry VIII ~ 40 years of age, by Joos van Cleeve. 
Further Reading:  Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England.


  1. It looks like in a movie, Cromwell should be played by Danny Aiello.

  2. Ms. Mantel's devotion to the facts is admirable. Too often people accept whatever they saw in a film as historical fact.
    There are people who think the Greeks won the Battle at Thermopylae.

  3. Gosh Henry VIII was probably in the top ten of biggest manipulative jerks that ever existed!!!!!!

  4. WILHELM THADDEUS FINKDecember 5, 2012 at 9:58 PM

    I've had "Wolf Hall" on my shelf since it was released:( I have no excuse not to read it now! Anyone have other suggestions for good historical fiction??

  5. Works as disparate as Miller's "The Crucible" and Tolstoy's "War and Peace" are historical fiction, right?
    Then I may suggest Shaw's "Saint Joan" as well.

  6. The thing I love most about historical fiction is that the really good ones, such as one I just finished reading, "Shadow of the Sun" by Merrie P. Wycoff (about ancient Egypt), makes me want to go out and research the history further. I love it when I find that the book is really closely related to actual historical facts- which is the case with "Shadow of the Sun." Your post makes me want to go read up on Henry VIII. Thanks for the great post!

    1. I also love reading about ancient egypt, so thanks for the tip!

  7. You are welcome. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.