Historical Friction

Whenever I try to read historical fiction, the little man in my hair starts screaming “Wrong! Wrong! It’s all wrong! They wouldn’t have said that! They didn’t talk like that! That wouldn’t have happened!”

My sister-in-law, a historian, gave me Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker-winning Wolf Hall for Christmas. Reading this novel about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, I’m managing to keep the little man subdued while I enjoy, if not the language – which hardly tries for verisimilitude - at least the texture, the habits of thought, the smell and feel of Tudor London, which are admirably contrived. While their speech has to be read as rough translation (if only to placate the little man), you do feel as though you were bumping up against the real bodies of Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry, Anne Boleyn, their immense personalities. You feel the rich crackle and sizzle of the court, the ever-present threat of betrayal, arrest, horrible death. You also feel the certainties of church, prayer-book, rosary, relic; you feel them crumbling against the tidal push of protest coming from abroad. Sixteenth-century life and custom, rather than being simply documented, are woven dexterously into the fabric of the story. There is an immediacy about it which is more pleasing than accuracy. No doubt this is the point, pace little man, of historical fiction.