Recently, there has been a cascade of great historical novels published in Britain. Reading two of the bestselling titles, it was surprising how similar they are: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010). Both novels deal with very different time periods and settings: Tudor England in Wolf Hall and late eighteenth-century Japan in de Zoet. Even so, they are so similar that we can see real trends emerging in historical fiction.
The first is the titles. These bear little connection to the story that unfolds. ‘Wolf Hall’ is a stately home which is hardly mentioned in Mantel’s life of the politician Thomas Cromwell. ‘The Thousand Autumns’ of David Mitchell’s title is a poetic name for Japan. As a phrase, it’s only mentioned once in the novel and even then, illuminates nothing.
De Zoet himself disappears from the action entirely for much of the story. Like Cromwell, he is a relatively dull character who rarely challenges the supporting cast for the reader’s attention. Perhaps this is because they are both bookkeepers. Boiled down to its basics, Jacob de Zoet is a clerk performing due diligence on a corrupt trading outpost of the Dutch empire. Cromwell too ‘dazzles’ people by his canny handling of finance.
Could this be due to the source material available? Contrary to the excitement of TV history, most historical research involves poring over early balance sheets, because these are the best-kept records of their time. Take for example the oldest writing of all: cuneiform blocks from ancient Uruk. For a long time, these were indecipherable, a tantalising mystery, making us wonder what secrets were cut into this ancient clay. Imagine the disappointment when the jagged marks finally gave up their mystery. The blocks were lists of agricultural produce such as skins, wheat and milk. Depressingly, it seems accountancy is the world’s oldest profession.
Both of these novels are written in the present tense, which makes the distant events feel real. They also eschew the first-person narrator. Using a third-person ‘god-like’ narrator allows Mantel and Mitchell to flaunt their virtuosity: these are fabulous writers of English prose:
Gardiner wears furs, which look like oily and dense black feathers; he stands now, ruffling them, gathering his clothes about his tall straight person like black angel’s wings. (from Wolf Hall)
There is only one deviation from this rule. In de Zoet, Mitchell writes an entire chapter in the first person, told by an utterly unimportant character, without any framing device such as a letter. This breaks the illusion and makes the reader suddenly aware of the author. Unfortunately, it weakens the overall effect of the book.
Pronouns are also Mantel’s undoing. Throughout the book, she uses ‘he’ to mean ‘Thomas Cromwell’, often without differentiating Cromwell from anyone else. Frequently, several people are called ‘he’ within the same paragraph, and the reader hasn’t a clue about what is happening. Is it possible that Mantel used a first-person narrator in early drafts, and that this is just a hangover from a previous version of the manuscript?
In another departure from earlier novels, both books are stuffed with minor characters. These are rarely described in detail. It is almost impossible to imagine who they are or what they look like. In one paragraph of de Zoet, Mitchell introduces three characters whose names all begin with W- (Walker, Waldron, and Wesley). To compound the confusion, he barely mentions any of them again. On the other hand, at one point Mantel apologises for the confusion of names in her story. It’s not her fault that almost every Tudor politician is called ‘Thomas’: Cromwell, Audley, Bolyen, Cranmer, Howard, Wolsely, Wriothesley and More.
Thomas More is no stranger to British fiction. However, neither Mantel nor Mitchell is a great respecter of reputations. Readers of Wolf Hall would be surprised to find that the scholarly Thomas More was a fervent burner of heretics. Mitchell meanwhile sets his sights on Carl Linnaeus. The creator of the Linnean system (the means by which we call ourselves Homo Sapiens), “taught also that swallows hibernate under lakes… [and] that twelve-foot giants thump about Patagonia”. Both books are packed with interesting details like this, skilfully woven into the tale.
‘Skill’ is the imperative word here. We are living through a golden era of historical fiction where Mantel and Mitchell are masters of the craft. Either one of these sumptuous novels will remind you why you loved reading in the first place.