Sometime last year I picked up Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
Two days later I put it down again. And then picked up Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.
A day later I put that down and realised I'm in love with Thomas Cromwell. I mean, obviously. Of course I am. I always should have been. I've been reading Tudor history (fiction, faction and fact) since I was about nine and first picked up a Jean Plaidy.
I was so terrified by her depiction of Henry VIII in Murder Most Royal when I was about 11 that I started having nightmares about him. He was an ogre. A monster who murdered his wives. And just about the most fascinating person I'd ever come across. More fascinating even than Freddy Kreuger. And infinitely more terrifying.
I remember thinking that if I lived in those times and had to make the choices those people made, I would have said anything to keep myself alive. I would have had no truck with martyring myself. I would have happily recanted whatever was asked of me, if only to avoid being ripped limb from limb, burned at the stake or hanged, drawn and quartered.
Jean Plaidy rewrote history as tawdry romance. Bodice ripping sex romps with lost of torture and murders. It's a common treatment of the era. This was back in the day before historical fiction had a resurgence. My choices were Jean Plaidy or full on scholarly stuff. And I chose salacious terror. Everyone seemed to be in fear of their lives and everyone was sleeping with everyone else.
For all its terrifying fascination, Plaidy's Murder Most Royal, and particularly her books about Mary, Queen of Scots, completely caught my girlish imagination and started a semi obsession with the era that saw me read my way through every book possible.
Philippa Gregory's resurgence and 21st century sexed up treatment of the Boleyn Girls... Alison Weir'd back catalogue... Everything and anything. So when it came to 2009 and Mantel's Wolf Hall, I'd sort of become blase and fed up. The American series, The Tudors, starring a ridiculous cast and lots of fucking further convinced me that no one gives a real shit about the period and would rather turn it into a vaguely fact based Game of Thrones incest fest.
Fuck it, I thought.
No one can tell me anything new about Henry VIII and his buddies.
Then came Mantel. I still couldn't be arsed, honestly. Especially when she won the Man Booker prize. Every Booker prize winner I've ever read has been a bore-fest. So I picked up Wolf Hall in a charity shop. And it blew my mind.
It's easily the most genius depiction of these well worn characters I've ever read. Turning Cromwell into a real man, saving him from the usual depiction of cold, harsh asshole who just really wanted to make it difficult for More, showing him as human. Spinning the whole story on its ass and giving a new perspective? Astonishing. Mantel is one of the smartest writers I have ever read. And I've read a lot.
To see it played out on TV in just the perfect way just underlines the strength of her characterisation. Whoever has adapted her books has done a stunning job. Not just for the way it looks - every scene looks like a Holbein - or the perfect casting (Damian Lewis, finally FINALLY a convincing Henry VIII) - but for the writing. Somehow the Cromwell from the books is there, on screen. He's there.
Critics have moaned that it's not completely historically accurate. Which is nonsensical flim flam. Mantel makes no bones about the fact that this is her interpretation of Cromwell and his actions. Bizarrely, critic types, she wasn't actually there, so can't swear for totally certain that this is what he felt, this is how he thought, this is how he survived, this is why.
It's an era that is part familiar to us and part completely foreign. How can any of us really know how it was? We live in a time of unprecedented freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Mantel spent five years researching Wolf Hall and it's as near as perfect as it's possible to be.
The last in the trilogy is out this year. I'm not sure I can stand the trauma of Cromwell's inevitable fall. Mantel has made me fall in love with a man from the 16th century. I don't want him to die.