Pompeii and Wolf Hall: Two Kinds of Historical Novel
By Garry Craig Powell
I have just finished reading, back to back, Robert Harris’ Pompeii and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Both are international bestsellers; both deserve to be for the quality of the research and the vividness of the writing; both authors are English and middle-aged. (One of them, Harris, is like me an alumnus of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and was, I believe, in residence while I was, but if I met him, I don’t remember.) Both are worth adding to your summer reading list, if you haven’t read them already. Still, there are some major differences between them, which illustrate, for me, the two main categories of historical fiction, so it may be useful to consider their qualities in a little more detail.
Pompeii first. You know the basic plot: Mount Vesuvius explodes and wipes out Pompeii and Herculaneum, and pretty much everyone in them. And yet, although we already know the ending, Harris crafts a gripping thriller by creating characters who are not only trying to outrun the volcano, in some cases, but each other. The suspense comes from wondering who, if anyone, will survive. The main characters are an ‘aquarius’ or water-bearer—that is, a hydro-engineer, named Attilius, a young man hurriedly appointed by Rome to ensure the Bay of Naples’ aqueducts keep supplying water when Exomnius, the old aquarius, inexplicably deserts his post. Attilius is quickly drawn into a threatening situation: not only does he realize at once that something is seriously amiss underground, but he uncovers a web of corruption involving Ampliatus, a very rich but sadistic ex-slave, and his henchman; to make matters worse, he falls in love with Ampliatus’ daughter, Corelia, who, in best Hollywood fashion, falls for him too, and luckily for him, is disgusted with her father’s cruelty and is ready to defy him. It sounds a little corny, and it is: can the noble-minded youngsters not only outrun the lava and ash but also avoid being murdered? I don’t mean to patronise the author or the book. The descriptions of first century Roman life are so vivid that you feel as if you have lived there; Harris is a first-rate storyteller who grips you like the Ancient Mariner and won’t let you go until he’s told you his story; and however predictable it might sound, he injects enough twists and surprises to keep even a jaded reader white-knuckled. Besides, he throws in historical characters like Pliny the Elder (perhaps they’re all historical: I don’t know) whose only desire is to observe and describe the fascinating phenomenon of the eruption, no matter what happens to himself. In other words, this is a highly enjoyable historical novel whose aim, it’s fair to say, is simply to entertain. The characters are not terribly complex or deep, and although you learn a great deal about Imperial Rome, a reading of the novel will not make you question much else about life. Still, it is no mean feat to write escapist fiction of this quality, and Harris is to be commended. If you’re looking for a great read on the beach, go no further.
Wolf Hall, by contrast, is a stunning tour de force—a more serious, more ‘literary’ novel, and yet one that also manages to be suspenseful and hard to put down, in spite (once again) of the fact that most readers already know the basic plot. In case you don’t, it’s the story of Henry VIII and his seven-year courtship of Ann Boleyn (perhaps the most skilful cock-teaser of all time), along with his machinations to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, in an era when divorces could only be granted by the Pope. It’s seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a highly gifted man who is also a pragmatist, unlike his idealistic but cruel predecessor, Thomas More. A subplot involves the fall from favour of Cardinal Wolsey, whose protégé and sincere admirer Cromwell is, and the subsequent rise of Cromwell, from runaway blacksmith’s boy and mercenary to merchant and eventually counsellor to the king and the most powerful man in the kingdom, excepting Henry himself. It’s a fascinating and incredibly vivid study not only of Tudor England—you feel as if you have spent at least ten years there yourself—and its cruelty and the insecurity of even the most apparently solid fortunes, but also of how political power worked and works, for Tudor England was perhaps not so different from present-day America, or any country run by a strong-willed leader who desperately wants to be liked and yet has a ruthless streak. Mantel takes us behind the closed doors and shows us how the critical decisions are made:
“The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and ceremony. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtains, the discreet sigh of flesh upon flesh.” (610)
We might be talking about Henry and Cromwell, and one of the Boleyn sisters, or equally about JFK and Bobby, with Jackie or Marilyn. And the portraits of these people are so complex and convincing that, despite their faults, we sympathise with them. I found myself almost liking Henry, the childlike man who so desperately wants to be liked, who can be so affable and generous, who is disgusted by coarse language and smutty stories—and yet who does not always live up to his own ideals. The portrait of Cromwell himself is a masterpiece of portraiture worthy of Hans Holbein (another character in the novel): a man who looks like a murderer, as his own children tell him, and who may well be one—he certainly exploits his fearsome appearance and reputation—and a man who loathes pious hypocrisy and is willing to do almost anything for his king and country, and yet who is a loving husband and father, a loyal and generous friend, and a superb manager and statesman. There are so many brilliant portraits in the book, including both the Boleyn girls, the scheming and selfish Ann and her much kinder sister, Mary, for whom Cromwell has a soft spot—but I can’t mention them all here.
To cap it all, Mantel is writing English prose as well as anyone alive: her language is so precise, so colourful, the imagery so striking and original. How about this? The ‘he’ of the second clause of the second sentence is Thomas Cromwell, who has adopted Richard as his son and believes he is dying:
“Richard Cromwell roars, can we have some quiet in here? When he roars, he sounds Welsh; he thinks, on an ordinary day I would never have noticed that. He closes his eyes. Ladies move behind his lids: transparent like little lizards, lashing their tails. The serpent queens of England, black-fanged and haughty, dragging their blood-soaked linen and their crackling skirts. They kill and eat their own children; this is well-known. The suck their marrow before they are even born.” (612)
What I love about literary historical novels like Wolf Hall, or Graves’ Claudius novels, Ondaatje’s The English Patient, John Berger’s G. or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is that, however vivid and exciting they may be, they are not primarily historical—that is, their stories are so universal, so disturbing, so human, so full of imperfect characters who are cruel and loving, ambitious and kind, ruthless and tender, like ourselves, that we forget we are reading about people from another age, because they could be from any age. These novels make us think about who we are and how we live. They have a strong moral dimension. They are not escapist. This is not to denigrate the kind of fiction written by Robert Harris. He pulls off his thrillers with consummate skill, and I envy his craft; but it seems to me that the other kind is the one that really matters. And Hilary Mantel is as masterful an exponent of it as I have ever read. Can she be mentioned in the same hallowed breath as Tolstoy? She can. She’s in that league.