I once took a class in watercolour painting. About the only thing I remember is that we learned the colour of shadows. The shadow of a green apple, for example, is not grey but blue; the shadow of an orange is violet, and so on. This strikes me as an apt image for the genius of Hilary Mantel: she can paint not only the things themselves but the colour of their shadows.
Her rendering of Tudor England, (anything but a still life), is deep and dense; not because she’s at pains to render every detail, but because she isn’t. Such is the vivacity of her recreation that when she writes “window” you picture lead-latticed casements without being told to. Glances through such windows are enough to suggest a totally different relationship to gardens, weather, herbs and crops. The materials of the Tudor world are very present: cold stone, embroidered silk, scented wood, air that’s damp, or clean, or plague-ridden. But the immaterial is equally present. Minds, spirits, consciences all straddling the break with Rome, the new gospel, the frailty of a divinely appointed king; it’s frightening how easily one acquiesces in the casual misogyny and debauchery of the court. Mantel’s characters, though necessarily fictive, bestride their world authentically. It’s the opposite of that strange quality that makes CGI animation never feel quite right, no matter how lifelike - figures look solid but seem weightless. Her figures, particularly her Cromwell, move in three dimensions, every movement fully weighted, every shadow faithfully coloured.
This, I think, is what sets her apart from the generality of historical fiction writers. Authenticity, far more than accuracy, is the real pull of successful historical fiction. It's fiction loosed in history, but not unmoored from truth. Fiction that kicks away the struts of accuracy without falling into error. This is what Shakespeare knew, when he shoved an actor onto the stage at the beginning of Henry V to deliver this prologue. It sounds like an apology for lack, but it's really a defense of the kind of imagination Mantel brings to her little kingdom.
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i'the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.