historical fiction

Lessons from Wolf Hall

Every aspiring writer knows that the first thing you have to do to improve is to read voraciously. Not a problem for me – most of the time reading is what I’d rather be doing anyway.

No, the problem comes when you read something so darned brilliant that you wonder what on earth is the point of carrying on writing, since in order to produce something even halfway as good you would probably have to live to be 193.

Fortunately, I have learned the hard way (and so has my family, unfortunately) that if I don’t write I become a grumpy old cow who is not worth living with. So after I read Wolf Hall I resisted the temptation to throw all my notebooks on a bonfire and instead decided to list, calmly, some of the things that a beginner writer like me could learn from a master like Hilary Mantel.

Make historical detail work hard

Thomas Cromwell, portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger

Obviously a novel set in the past needs to be full of historical detail but there is always a danger that the writer’s research will come over as just that – dry facts rather than part of an engrossing story. Mantel never falls into this trap. She weaves all the elements of her novel into a seamless whole, and makes the historical facts really work for their place in the story.

There’s an incident near the start, for example, where Thomas Cromwell is trying to run away to sea. He meets ‘three elderly Lowlanders struggling with their bundles and moves to help them. The packages are soft and bulky, samples of woollen cloth.’ As the elderly trio struggle with an obnoxious official, Cromwell fools around, ‘pretending to be a Lowland oaf’, and wins the official over with a bribe. Delighted, the Lowlanders claim Cromwell as their own and get him aboard. So in this one little incident, Mantel has developed her novel in various ways. She has added detail and colour to the historical world she is creating – the wool trade was vital to Scotland back then but the official’s behaviour is a sign of how unpopular the Scots could be in England. She has also built up Cromwell’s character: this quick thinking and ability to win the trust of people across the social spectrum will prove crucial to his success. Finally, she has progressed the plot by using the incident as a way of getting him on board a ship and off on the travels that will inform much of what he does in the rest of the book.

Metaphor

Even a beginner like me can see that if your story is told from the point of view of someone who lived in the past you have to use metaphors that are historically appropriate. You can’t have your medieval hero calling his love rival a potato-head. Mantel does metaphor with brilliance, again making her sentences achieve more than one thing at a time. Take this description of the Duke of Norfolk, for example, where the metaphors not only call forth his appearance but also place him firmly in his historical context: ‘Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an axe head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links …’.

Remember that some things about people never change

The historical novelist has to have characters that belong in their period while still being people that the reader can relate to. One of the ways Mantel does this is by describing little quirks and gestures that we can recognise from people we know today. When she combines this kind of universal gesture with more period detail, then the characters become believable both in their timelessness and in their specific situation. Well-dressed young men have always fiddled with their clothes, for example, and George, Lord Rochford is no exception: ‘Today what fascinates him is the flame-coloured satin that is pulled through his slashed velvet over-sleeve. He keeps coaxing the little puffs of fabric with a fingertip, pleating and nudging them and encouraging them to grow bigger, so that he looks like one of those jugglers who run balls down their arms.’

Play with the readers’ knowledge of what happened next

Elizabeth I, c. 1575, unknown artist

The fact that readers already know what happened in the past obviously has to be borne in mind. Nobody today is going to be shocked if Anne Boleyn loses her head. Mantel shows how it is possible to have a little fun with this. For example, she has Cranmer say of the ‘poor little scrap’, the red-headed baby who is the future Elizabeth I, that ‘perhaps God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess’. As a reader you like that, you like being in the know, being actually superior to Henry VIII, who ‘sounds dubious’ when he replies: ‘My dear friend I am sure you are right.’

Wolf Hall: it’s a writer’s masterclass, as well as a brilliant read. Though perhaps the two always go together.