18 Jan

History As Showbiz

Having produced the most comical misreading of Tudor England – and therefore won prizes for it – Hilary Mantel, for her next stunt, is to publish her insights into today’s politics in her forthcoming book The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.  Nicholas Pearson, her publisher at Fourth Estate, said: “A new book from Hilary Mantel is a treat. Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become.” Forgery is a useful concept for anyone approaching the literary achievements of Ms Mantel

It is difficult to place Ms Mantel in the canon of historical novelists: somewhere a little higher than Danielle Steel perhaps, but rather lower than Georgette Heyer. The best I can do to give non-adherents the flavour is to describe her as the shopping woman’s guide to the 16th century. Strictly come dissolutioning – of the monasteries, as it were. One could hardly conjecture anything more incongrous, surreal and bizarre than such a mind applying itself to the century which gave us the subtleties of Cranmer and the complexities of Martin Luther’s German Christianity. Imagine a version of Die Welt Als Wille und Vorstellung produced by Geoffrey Boycott or an essay on Kant by Jonathan Ross.

Ms Mantel, in her excited prose, represents Thomas Cromwell’s destruction of the religious houses and the confiscation of their wealth as an enlightened and charitable act which led directly to the formation of the modern state. Perhaps it did so lead: but not everyone will count that as a sign of progress or an unmixed blessing. It was the religious houses which for seven hundred years had provided for the nation places of worship and places of work, had administered lands for the tilling, schools for common learning, hospitals for the sick, respite for the dying and prayers for the dead. The enthusiasm of the Reformers took away even that last comfort. Charity was replaced by bureaucracy and previous efficiency by massive neglect. Indeed, Mantel is right to see Cromwell as the prophet of the modern state. And it is the corporate state, the all-powerful state, the nanny state.

Of course, as they say today, she has a right to her opinions. But to see naked incompetence rewarded by literary prizes and critical accolades is to understand just what a falling off there has been. I look forward to The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Ms Mantel’s next blockbusting bumper fun book