One Thanksgiving during the four years I was a resident of London, at a dinner of Americans and French people, one of the Yanks at the table remarked that if she were a member of the English working class, she “would be throwing Molotov cocktails on the King’s Road and torching Buckingham Palace.” There had been riots in London the year before, student protests were a constant, and the previous autumn had seen the occupation of St. Paul’s, but none of this energy had been directed at the royal family. The Windsors are subsidized at a rate of £82 million a year, or £1.24 per British citizen, an amount it’s said they more than make up for by contributing to the economy as human tourist attractions, not to mention as mascots for various charitable causes. “Americans care more about the royal family than the British do,” another American expatriate friend of mine once remarked shortly after I’d arrived in London. “Speak for yourself,” I said. “Many of us don’t care about them at all.” Such was my disanglophilia, a failure to love English things and to love Englishness. I also fail to appreciate soccer. “That’s a shame,” someone told me. “If you liked football, you would be happier.” Perhaps I’d also be happier if I were inclined to take an interest in princes and princesses, living or dead.
If the royal family, history’s walking hangover, were abolished tomorrow, would cultural production chronicling the foibles of the English monarchy cease, or even slow down? The prospect is unlikely. Prince Andrew’s friendship with Jeffrey Epstein; the soft exit of Prince Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle, from public life; the revelation that Charles and Diana’s confidant and sometime marriage counselor Jimmy Savile was a serial pedophile—these scandals and contretemps only promise to become the fodder for ever more books and scripts about a once powerful family that is now merely a powerful distraction.
Speaking of distractions: Imagine a very long work of fiction published five hundred years in the future chronicling the turbulent career of the current American president, told from the point of view of one of his fixers—say, Michael Cohen. How much could such a fiction concern itself with the vicissitudes of the real estate business, or reality television, or even the mechanics of Russiagate? How interesting could such details be to the readers of the future? But one thing that always holds interest is sex. I wouldn’t want to read such a book, but I can imagine future readers who might. The three wives, the untold extramarital affairs with the likes of Stormy Daniels and who knows who else, and the victims of his alleged assaults. The story has been nauseating to live through. Perhaps given half a millennium and treatment from the right point of view it will read as an irresistible blend of farce and tragedy.
We have seen something like such a work in our own time. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the reign of Henry VIII as told through the eyes of his high chamberlain Thomas Cromwell is now complete, with The Mirror & the Light, the longest of the three volumes by a decent margin. Its predecessors have been greeted rapturously: Both Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) were awarded the Booker Prize; the first book took home the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US and last year was named the best book of the twenty-first century by The Guardian. It would be simple and not entirely inaccurate to attribute some of this acclaim to a taste among the British and among American anglophiles for the familiar. The story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the break of the English Crown from Rome is one every child learns at school, even if the figures of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell are slightly more obscure. Mantel’s centering of Cromwell represents an innovation on a story that writers since Shakespeare have been telling (Ford Madox Ford in The Fifth Queen Crowned) and telling (Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons) and telling again (television’s The Tudors).
It’s tempting to see Mantel’s triumph as part of a culture-wide formal retrenchment: the supremacy of the costume drama, no matter whether the costumes are worn by kings or aliens from Krypton. The lineage of the historical novel is practically coterminous with that of the novel itself. The genre was codified by Walter Scott and perfected by Tolstoy. War and Peace was a summit of both the historical novel and the nineteenth-century realist novel, which told a story of progress through calamity in the portrayal of “middling characters, of no great distinction,” as Perry Anderson put it in a 2011 essay on the genre, “whose function is to offer an individual focus for the dramatic collision of opposing extremes between whom they stand, or more often waver.” The classical historical novel, like the social novel of the present, doesn’t tend to focus on famous historical figures, relegating them instead to marginal roles and cameo appearances, the way novelists of the contemporary will occasionally drag someone like Barack Obama onstage to play a game of pickup basketball (see You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits).
Lately in America, where the historical novel has been a reliable staple marketed to book clubs interested in untold stories of the Civil War or the Holocaust, a surreal variant on the genre has gained prominence. In Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon demonstrated that history was a field open to all manner of postmodern play. In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead made use of anachronism and a deadpan interpretation of the movement that gave his book its title to dramatize several phases of African American history without moving through time. George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo imposed a Buddhist eschatology on the story of the death of the president’s son to achieve an emotional resonance that was only latent in the historical record. There was something inevitable about the fusion of the superhero myth and the fugitive-slave narrative that Ta-Nehisi Coates ventured last year in The Water Dancer. There is the sense with all these books that history offers something irresistibly attractive but also somehow insufficient. This is not Mantel’s way. Her answer to the problem of history and its uncertainties tends to be both more history and more uncertainty. Instead of taking recourse to the surreal as a way to garland history’s inadequacies, her books propose a version of history only to rewrite it again and again without ever veering out of the zone of the plausible.
The reception of Mantel’s trilogy hasn’t captured just how little these books feel like conventional novels. You might call them hyperconventional. Though there are few deviations from the real—as when Cromwell sees and speaks with apparitions, at least in his own head—the texture of Mantel’s style isn’t that of contemporary realism. Often you feel as if you’re reading not a novel but a vast and unstageable play. (The six-part 2015 BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies starring Mark Rylance was a massive feat of cutting.) Despite a cast of dozens and dozens of characters, there is no panorama and very little sense of the London street or the countryside. There is instead a slow and deliberate march through the years marked by a steady accumulation of ghosts—not literal ghosts, but memories of the recently dead, who seem to be on everybody’s mind. The fact of Thomas Cromwell’s presence in every scene and the filter of his consciousness give the books a static quality that one doesn’t typically associate with historical epics. Their range and sweep, across two thousand pages, is breathtakingly narrow. These books take place in chambers, in dimly lit rooms where Cromwell, the archetypal bureaucratic infighter, takes meetings. Traced across a little more than a decade, from 1527 to 1540, the novels’ central predicament—Henry VIII’s quest for a male heir, his break from the authority of the pope, his discarding and beheading of wives—is reiterated on almost every page. They are maddeningly repetitious. Their obsession with the sex lives of Henry VIII, his wives, and their court makes reading them not unlike reading the Daily Mail. Of course, as usual with the English, the sex talk is rarely explicit, but it is nonetheless sex that motivates these books. The English monarchy has always been a fertility cult.
Mantel knows this, and her persistence of focus is no doubt crucial to her books’ appeal and to her staggering if monstrous achievement. Defending the author against the unleveled charge that Wolf Hall was merely a historical novel, James Wood argued that “Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.” There is something to this, if you take the defining quality of a modern novel to be the perfection of point of view. However, I can think of no other modern novels that rely so much on dialogue to do the work of exposition and to do little else. Mantel’s characters are always talking and always talking about the same thing: the king and his marital problems and the way Cromwell manages them. For this reason the books have an immersive quality. Once you enter them, you are thoroughly within Cromwell’s world. Engagement with these novels is a matter of keeping the angles of intrigue straight within your head as Cromwell stifles one plot and hatches another, flips one courtier to his side and betrays the next. In this sense, plunging into the Wolf Hall novels requires a more thorough commitment than most fiction: They can be hard to pick up again if you put them down.
In their immersive quality, they do resemble another major contemporary work: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I make that comparison somewhat in jest—what could a sixteenth-century London court fixer have in common with a Gen X writer from Norway?—but the two projects do have in common the strategy of bombarding the reader with minutiae drawn from a narrow spectrum of experience over thousands of pages and many years of narrative time. Like Karl Ove, Thomas Cromwell is a survivor of childhood abuse at the hands of an angry and alcoholic father. His survival and flourishing are a matter of putting that father behind him. (There the useful similarities pretty much end.) Here’s how Mantel describes him early on in Wolf Hall when he serves as the lawyer for Cardinal Wolsey:
Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt—ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
So Mantel’s Cromwell is a proto-meritocrat, a well-rounded student of the world, an archaic version of a McKinsey consultant. He is a narcissistic careerist survivor, an infiltrator of the highest caste of feudal society, an avatar of newly ascendant finance capitalism. That expression of “stifled amusement”—the key to the success of Rylance’s performance of Cromwell in amplified mumbles and knowing stares—comes from the knowledge that he is living in the future while the ladies and gentlemen around him still believe themselves to be living in a world where the old rules still apply. Having fled home after a beating from his father—the opening scene of Wolf Hall—he becomes a teen soldier in France and then the servant of bankers in Florence and Antwerp. His years abroad constitute his education and his advantage over the gentlemen of London, who are only too happy to underestimate him as a man of low birth, a blacksmith’s son, even after he is knighted and gains the title of Lord.
The Wolf Hall trilogy tracks England’s break from papal domination—a sort of ur-Brexit yet also a matter of one man’s liberation from matrimony—and its progress out of feudalism. Within this schema, Cromwell’s rise is that of a post-Reformation order based not on hereditary titles and local militias but on secular law and the levers of international finance. In Wolf Hall, he tells this to Henry Percy, an earl who claims to have been betrothed and married to Anne Boleyn, and threatens to ruin him by calling in his debts and thereby rendering him useless as a defender of the kingdom’s northern front:
How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
Yet the progress portrayed across the trilogy is necessarily incomplete. The novels advance through a series of state-sanctioned beheadings—of Thomas More in Wolf Hall; of Anne Boleyn and the four alleged lovers in her court in Bring Up the Bodies—that in The Mirror & the Light reach their logical conclusion: the execution of Cromwell himself.
In the eyes of the papist rivals to the throne, “the Boleyns were a crass blunder, an error now cancelled by the headsman. No doubt they assume Thomas Cromwell can be cancelled too, reduced to the clerk he used to be: a useful man for getting money in, but dispensable, a slave that you trample as you stride up the stairway to glory.” Note Mantel’s ambiguously anachronistic use of “cancel,” a plausibly deniable wink to current cliché. As Cromwell sets about liquidating monasteries, essentially launching a program of modernization while also staving off an invasion by the Emperor Charles V, the screws tighten around him and he finds himself a prisoner in the Tower where he had for years been the inquisitor, seeing ghosts. We learn along with him across the novel that his image of himself doesn’t align with the way others see him. He is a profiteer, a murderer, a heretic, a betrayer of friends, and a traitor whose head will end up rolling in his own blood on the novel’s last page: “His cheek rests on nothing, it rests on red.”
It’s the ending that history requires, and it conforms to Gramsci’s idea of interregnum, when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”: Cromwell’s execution, like the many he arranged, is but a morbid symptom of a society in transition. The Mirror & the Light is longer and looser, more digressive, and more comic than its predecessors. At moments we see Cromwell not merely as an operator but as a connoisseur of poetry and art, reading the verse of Thomas Wyatt and commissioning Hans Holbein to paint him portraits of the kings of England. Was the real Cromwell as contemplative as Mantel’s Cromwell? The question is moot: For her purposes he has to be as she makes him; otherwise he would be unworthy of such a monumental and monomaniacal treatment in fiction. And here we find another parallel with Knausgaard’s project. For another writer to imitate Mantel’s undertaking would be folly. In giving new life to the historical novel, she may also have killed it. Who will come along to reattach the head?
Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.