Great historical fiction for fans of the Booker Prize-winning Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
Great historical fiction for fans of the Booker Prize-winning Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
Writing historical fiction is a huge challenge of the imagination. How much can we truly understand those from the distant past? Did they think, feel and desire the way we do? Can their stories feel truly relevant to the present day?
With The Mirror and The Light, the third instalment of her double Booker-winning trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel has ansered those question with an emphatic 'yes!', just as she did with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies before that.
Released to rave reviews this month, the novel is very, very good indeed. If you've already read it and are already suffering from Thomas Cromwell withdrawals, here are eight books by other authors you may enjoy.
Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch (2018)
This, according to Hilary Mantel herself, 'is the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years'. In fact, its observations struck her with such force that during her research for the final instalment of her trilogy about the blacksmith’s son from Putney who became Henry VIII’s head honcho, she says she adjusted her own views of the man as a result.
Mining forensically through Cromwell's vast collection of private papers, MacCulloch argues for the royal henchman's significance in the supercharged power-politics of Henry VIII’s court.
'The Cromwell who reveals himself over the course of [Mantel's] novels is very close to the Cromwell I met,' said MacCulloch in an interview last year. In other words: dark, brooding, sinister and utterly compelling.
Frankly, if you're into Tudor life, scandal and political shenanigans, you should read Plaidy's entire saga. It'll take a while; there are 11 of them. But few authors had such a knack for imagining past times for a present audience (by the time of her death, Plaid – real name Eleanor Hibbert – had written more than 200 novels that worldwide sold more than 100 million copies in 20 languages). Murder Most Royal is the fifth novel in the series, a highly embroidered history of two Queens betrayed and beheaded: Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.
Set against a violent background, Plaidy tells the story of ill-fated Boleyn one of the most fascinating personalities in English history. Not only is it a dramatic story of sex, power and intrigue, but it is written beautifully, too.
The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story by Catherine Fletcher (2012)
Henry VIII has Morris-danced around the English subconscious for almost half a millennium, one of the most influential – and written-about – kings in the nation's history. If you're going to write a book about him, you need to do a solid job, and Catherine Fletcher's fine example is set in marble (Mantel herself called it ‘an eye-opening book' and 'an intricate and fascinating story’).
This, however, focuses not on Henry's man on the ground in England (Cromwell) but on his guy in Rome, as he seeks to divorce not only his first wife Catherine of Aragon but the Catholic Church as well. Enter Gregorio Casali, an Italian diplomat hired to represent Henry’s interests in the Vatican.
Despite constant pressure from both his king and Pope, Casali must live by his wits, playing off one powerful patron against another, backdropped by war-torn Renaissance Italy. This book combines a gripping family drama with a tightly-coiled battle of wills between the Tudors and the Vatican to expose the true story behind history's most famous divorce.
The Marriage Game by Alison Weir (2014)
As a popular historian, Alison Weir is best-known for her sweeping historical biographies of old-time royalty, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to all six wives of Henry VIII. Yet, given her knowledge of Tudor England in particular, her novels set in the period are rollicking reads, not least The Marriage Game, a ceaselessly engaging account of Elizabeth I's attempt reconcile her personal passions with public life.
Spanning 30 years of her long reign, the book charts – among much else – her ruthless manipulation of marriage as a personal and political weapon, stringing along prince after prince in the name of power. In the process Weir paints a vivid portrait of a queen haunted by the lethal marriage of her mother Anne Boleyn, while creaking beneath the strain – like her father before her – of having to produce an heir. Elizabeth famously once told her subjects: 'I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.' Hers, on the other hand, makes for fascinating reading.
The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain (1881)
Set in the twilight Henry VIII's reign, Twain's 1881 classic imagines the meeting of a poor commoner and the young Prince Edward, Henry's son. Each wants the other's life and, as luck would have it, they look the same. In the vein of everything from Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors to Hollywood's sub-genre of body-swap comedies, they switch places, learn a thing or two about life and upheave the social order.
Keenly observed, wittily told and with all the satirical fireworks one expects of Twain's writing, this is a masterpiece of historical fiction, by a master of the art. Around the two boys' charming story, Twain acutely recounts the high-pressure environment of Henry VIII's court – a place where murder, torture and cruelty were as common as flattery, deception and cunning. It is a delicious black pudding of a book, which will enthral any Mantel fan who choses to read it.
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (1961)
Unlike Mantel's Cromwell trilogy, this sprawling historical saga is not set in Tudor England, but in 1540s Scotland. It follows the travails of rebel nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond who comes back to Edinburgh after five years imprisonment to rebuild his honour, and get revenge. His return instantly sets off all manner of betrayals, both personal and political. Pin-balling about a vast cast of colourful characters, Crawford is a traitor and a mercenary, a seducer and a spy, an ear to awful rulers and the target of many a powerful man and woman (who mostly just want to do him in).
But it's more than just a melodrama; its characterisation is magnificent, and contains some very fine set pieces (including a brutal chess game in which the pieces are human beings and the price for being taken is death). Which is all to say nothing of Dunnett's exquisite writing style. It is so good, in fact, that National Public radio, in America, once called Dunnett, 'the literary equivalent of the Velvet Underground: Not many people bought the books, but everyone who did wrote a novel.' Mantel fans: neglect Dunnett at your peril.
The King's Spy by Andrew Swanston (2012)
This is a thriller set a hundred years after Thomas Cromwell's death, in an England now consumed by bloody civil war. King Charles I has fled London; the future of parliament hangs in the balance. Not that much of this has reached Thomas Hill, a pacifist bookseller based in the rural reaches of Romsey.
Not, that is, until a stranger knocks on his door to inform him the king's cryptographer has been murdered, and he's needed at his Oxford bolthole to aid the secret war of codes and ciphers. Soon Hill is thrust into a world of treachery, conspiracy, battles and brawls, romance and revenge... and code-breaking, as he bids to stop a shadowy traitor doing the dirty on the king. Certainly a lighter read than anything by Mantel, but Swanston's descent into the depths of the English Civil War is a hair-raising ride through one of the lesser-used and tense periods of the country's political history.
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)
When published in 1951, Yourcenar's fictionalized autobiography of the Roman emperor made historical fiction sexy, relevant and literary for the first time in decades. Just as Mantel has added fresh spice to the genre with her Cromwell trilogy, Yourcenar took the modern reader inside the psyche of a political mastermind.
It is sculpted in the style of a letter, written by the dying Hadrian to his heir, Marcus Aurelius, to warn him of his predecessors' mistakes if he is to fulfil his destiny.
Written with such bravura and historical accuracy, it is easy to buy the illusion that the novel is a recently unearthed historical document. But it is not. It is in fact an exceptionally readable and intimate portrait of one of the great rulers of the ancient world, as the curtains close on his extraordinary life. He build the wall at the Roman empire's most northerly limit, founded cities across the world, was an avid art collector and had an intriguing, if rather tragic, love life. It is just one of those rare books that successfully re-animates the ghost of a man who lived in the second century AD, in our world.