Historical Friction: Hilary Mantel’s Underrated First Novel

'Bring Up The Bodies' may have won Hilary Mantel a heap of prizes, but it’s not her best.

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You have it on your nightstand. Everybody does. Never mind the Booker, the Costa and all the other prizes. When Salon hailed Bring Up the Bodies in its inaugural “What to Read” awards and Entertainment Weekly named the hefty historical as the best fiction of the year, Hilary Mantel’s latest hit the big time. Your dirty little secret? You haven’t read any of its 432 pages. And you don’t have to.

It’s not that Bring Up the Bodies isn’t great, in its way. The second in a proposed trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, adviser to King Henry VIII, this fat Tudor tome has the kind of dense beauty a New Yorker critic could love. (The weekly did a hagiographic retrospective on the British author in October.) Reviews have noted Mantel’s subtle wordplay, the way her Cromwell mixes the rough Anglo-Saxon of his youth with the more elegant Latinate words this political animal would have picked up in his travels through war-torn 16th century Europe. 

And, of course, there’s Anne Boleyn: beautiful, audacious, doomed.  The second wife – and first “beheaded” – in Henry’s infamous uxorial parade. (Once again, for all you history buffs: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.) Plus, for all its bulk, Bring Up the Bodies is both shorter and easier to read than its predecessor, the almost equally celebrated 672-page Wolf Hall.  

(Critic’s tip: In the first book, substitute Thomas More anytime Cromwell says “He.” Or the king. Or, if those don’t work, Cromwell himself. Stream of consciousness builds muscles.)

But why suffer when you can romp? Put those dour Brits aside for a sojourn in Paris, circa 1790, and the company of eager young things, desperate to get their lives started. In from the provinces, or chafing under the parental gaze, they’re horny, broke, bored. When they meet in the cafés or the courts – the men have all ended up lawyers, for lack of any real vocation; the women are married, or supposed to be – they grumble and bitch. The country is broke; the laws too restrictive. One thing leads to another. You guessed it. A Place of Greater Safety, as this better Mantel is called, offers an intimate take on how a handful of disaffected young things start the French Revolution. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

It’s not just the setting – or the bloodier goings-on – that makes Safety the better book. Yes, there’s an argument to be made that the history is more solid than in the Tudor books; much of Safety is drawn from letters of the day, and tidbits are popped into the book like razor blades, setting the scene for the Terror. “Bread is the main thing to understand,” Mantel explains in her dry, wry voice. “[T]he staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over) a woman of the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’”

There’s an energy here, an inevitability. Dozens of vivid characters, and the main actors – Danton, Desmoulins, even that prig Robespierre – stand out as being the most driven, as well as more or less idealistic, once the more pressing bills are paid.

There’s also, strangely, optimism. Maybe not so strange: Safety was Mantel’s first novel, although it didn’t get published until after two shorter, much more dismal modern books were sold. It was written before a bad divorce and excruciating health problems caused the author to doubt her sanity, as well as her talent. And that optimism shows: at nearly 800 pages, Safety is sprawling in the best sense – switching from dialogue to narration with wildly dark humor, and spanning multiple lives from before their conception to their admittedly early deaths. It is, as that New Yorker profile wrote, “young, fierce, brutal, and witty.” It’s also a lot more fun than the more recent books.

So check it out: A Place of Greater Safety. You’ll still get points from your book group. The French Revolution isn’t kids’ stuff, and Mantel is still the National Book Awards’ “UK Author of the Year,” after all. But you’ll have a rollicking good time, too. Just as Danton, Desmoulins, and even, let’s admit it, Robespierre did. Until the blade comes down.

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