Novels based on well-known historical events and personages must dwell in the interstices of history. They must fill in what we don’t know. This is the historical novelist’s burden and her privilege. In Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in a trilogy that is shaping up to be this young century’s first masterpiece of historical fiction, the interstices are filled in by Thomas Cromwell, a highly engaging and well-wrought literary character who was the subject of an earlier post.
It struck me, as I greedily devoured Bring Up the Bodies, that much of the genius of these novels comes to us through Cromwell’s backstory. Mantel’s protagonist is compelling not only because he’s a bold man of action; it’s because he’s a thinker, a dreamer who spends many a late night running over his colorful past. Mantel gives us access to Cromwell’s rich inner life, which contributes greatly to the sense we get of full immersion in the historical period – and gives us insight, more broadly, into what it means to be human.
As we discussed in a previous post, this is exactly the kind of thing literature can do better than any other medium. In a sense, Cromwell’s backstory in these novels is his character, and Cromwell’s character is what makes these novels great. For a writer, that seems like something worth exploring.
By coincidence, at the same time I was reading Bring Up the Bodies I chanced upon an essay on backstory by a brilliant young novelist named Eleanor Henderson in Poets & Writers magazine. In her highly insightful piece Henderson points out, among other things, that backstory provides characters with “the weight of history, the magic of motivation.” She makes a useful distinction between backstory (summary), and flashback (scene).
In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel uses both backstory and flashback to excellent effect. In the second chapter, after a relatively inconsequential scene at Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell’s city house, we experience a refreshing plunge into the protagonist’s lively brain:
“But look: we have sat here too long! Let’s be up and out into the gardens of Austin Friars, Master Secretary’s pride; he wants the plants he saw flowering abroad, he wants better fruit, so he nags the ambassadors to send him shoots and cuttings in the diplomatic bag. The keen young clerks stand by, ready to break a code, and all that tumbles out is a root-ball, still pulsing with life after a journey through the straits of Dover.
He wants tender things to live, young men to thrive. So he has built a tennis court, a gift to Richard and Gregory and all the young men of his house . . . In Italy, when he was a servant in Frescobaldi’s household, the boys would go out in the hot evening and play games in the street. It was tennis of a kind, a jeu de paume, no racquets but just the hand . . . ”
Did you note the subtlety of the transition here? The mention of “plants he saw flowering abroad;” the connection between his new tennis court and the games he played as a young man in Italy; and the correspondence between himself as a servant in Frescobaldi’s household and “all the young men of his house”?
This strikes me as a very artful way – a kind of slipping back and forth between the present and the past – to prepare for the leap into full-fledged backstory. And Mantel is careful to do it in a way that is organic to the narrative, avoiding the kind of contrived feeling, all-too-convenient info dump that can mar backstory in lesser fiction.
Mantel’s exit from this episode of backstory is even more impressive. Cromwell reflects briefly on the centrality to his life of what we moderns would call “mentorship,” which leads him from Frescobaldi to his more recent master, Cardinal Wolsey, whose tragic fall was the subject of the first book of Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall:
“ . . . a good master gives more than he takes and his benevolence guides you through your life. Think of Wolsey. To his inner ear, the Cardinal speaks. He says, I saw you, Crumb, when you were at Elvetham: scratching your balls in the dawn and wondering at the violence of the king’s whims. If he wants a new wife, fix him one. I didn’t, and I am dead.”
In just a few pages, then, Mantel has taken us on vertiginous journey back in time, ending the excursion with a comment that suddenly lays bare the central motivation powering the novel’s plot. Do you see this? The backstory here is far from gratuitous. Mantel is using it not just as cross-hatching, to shade in the texture of a character, but as a bold black line to trace the underlying architecture of the narrative itself.
One more example. Here’s the entry:
“He had met an old knight once, in Venice . . . ”
The knight leads him on a cascading memory-tour of a day and a night in Venice, from summarized backstory to dramatized flashback, and a visit to a church, where a watchman shows the young Cromwell some new Giorgione frescoes by torchlight. Afterwards he catches a wistful glimpse of an “expensive whore” whose fleeting beauty echoes that of a half-formed goddess painted in the frescoes, and an ominous vision of the shadows in a Venetian square.
“If I ever need to vanish, he says, this is where I shall do it.”
And here’s the exit:
“But that was long ago and in another country. Now Rafe Sadler is here with a message: he must return suddenly to Greenwich, to this raw morning, the rain just holding off . . . It is the king, Rafe says. It is Henry, he is dead.”
The wistful flashback to Cromwell’s youth may seem irrelevant, but it has an important function. The glimpses of late night in Venice, the fresco and the beautiful goddess and the expensive whore, the shades of longing and mystery, provide a pause, a caesura, a last look back before the events of what Eleanor Henderson calls “frontstory” close their iron fingers around our necks and propel us helplessly forward.
The descriptive prose in the flashback is filled with ominous tension, not direct foreshadowing, but what I’ve referred to in a previous post as “shadow description.” Thus it prepares our subconscious minds to receive the shock of Henry’s death (which, spoiler alert, turns out to be a false alarm). And this is quite important because, in a good novel, an event this big can’t just arrive out of the blue.
We won’t go into it here, but there are numerous other examples of beautifully executed backstory in Bring Up the Bodies. Some of it is merely to get the work done of reminding the reader of what's already happened so he’ll be prepared for what is to come. But in Mantel’s hands, backstory and flashback are never clunky mechanistic exigencies; they’re lively brushstrokes on the irresistible canvas of the story itself.