It was with dismay that I read the headline in the Daily Mail this week that “Mantel in line again for £50,000 Booker”. I should not, however, have been surprised since the name Booker, along with Turner, has become a symbol of the alienation between our so-called intellectual elite and the rest of university-educated society.
Because it was a prize-winner, I naively invested in two copies of Wolf Hall as presents for two contrasting Tudor enthusiasts. What they both had in common was surrendering reading in despair after reading a few chapters.
For that reason, I was determined to read the book in the luxury of being cut off in a French campsite. My determination ensured that I survived the ordeal but felt utterly disappointed.
Mantel started in a formulaic way with such violence to her hero that I thought I was reading “Straw Dogs”. After that exertion, she then meanders in great detail through the life of Thomas Cromwell, a fascinating character from history. There were few insights, however, into explaining that historical fascination.
Ironically, her treatment of Wolsey and More is much more impressive and the character of the latter stimulates interest because of the apparent contrast with the “Man for All Seasons”, so beloved of our generation.
The other aspect of formulaic writing in which she indulges is in choosing an intriguingly macabre title. I was really looking forward to being terrified of “Wolf hall” but it transpires that it was the headquarters of the Seymour family who, quite rightly, play a minor role in this “history”: their time is yet to come.
In reality, it is only the partial rise of Cromwell which encompasses this book. My theory is, therefore, that Mantel was so bored after writing 650 pages that she decided to pause - and write a money-spinning trilogy. The second instalment “Bring up the Bodies” has the same intriguing title but will it be equally disappointing?
By accident this summer, I started reading C J Sansom’s ‘Shardlake’ novels which are also inspired by the rule of Thomas Cromwell. I am learning so much more about the drama of his rise and fall from this self-effacing character that I cannot wait to read the next books in the series.
Sansom, with his PhD in History nevertheless appreciates that historical fiction is a mode of awakening a love of history in the reader. It was the 'Henrys' Treece and Trease who are partly responsible for me being unable to avoid my nemesis as a history teacher. Good historical fiction creates the desire to learn more about the historical facts about the characters to see how accurate is the portrayal.
Mantel succeeds only in dampening that ardour. I recommend that the Booker judges reconsider the positive purpose of historical fiction and replace Mantel in the shortlist with Sansom. Roll on the next holiday so I can follow the exploits of Shardlake and Cromwell!