There is one thing you can say with some degree of certainty about Mantel. She understands class, she understands sex and she understands human frailties. What better tools can novelist possibly need? The fact that she is a writer of stunning ability is the final ingredient for greatness. Nearly nine hundred pages of historical recreation and not for a single moment does the tension let up. Having been blown away, like so many people, by Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and her subsequent ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ I was very reluctant to take on a novel that was written over twenty years earlier. Surely I would be disappointed. Surely it would just represent her apprenticeship for the masterpiece that was yet to come. No sir! Mantel’s, ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is a masterpiece in its own right. Readers need not fear a sense of anti-climax having read the first two parts of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. What Mantel has done for our appreciation of Cromwell, she has equally done for our understanding of Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins. And the brilliance that she has bought to the first two parts of her Tudor trilogy is every bit in evidence in her reconstruction of the French Revolution.

It matters little whether Mantel has got her historical characters absolutely correct. It matters little if she even gets substantial parts wrong. She does her research meticulously and then imagines the rest. But the interesting thing is that there is enough space in her historical novels for the reader to do their own imaginings. Who cares if Danton was two thirds revolutionary and one third greedy, egoistic megalomaniac. Or the other way around. It just doesn’t matter. What matters is that Mantel opens up our collective imaginations to periods of history that still, remarkably, have a bearing on how we live today. That most intricate of tapestries where bitter class rivalries collide with noble political intent and sordid personal ambitions still resonates. Who can unravel with certainty such a tapestry? It is difficult enough to do it for today’s political dramas let alone those that played themselves out centuries earlier.

 Mantel is not a historian per se but she is perhaps a better historian than those who profess to be just that. For history telling can, in the final instance, be nothing but interpretation and Mantel is content to offer us her interpretation. Take it or leave it. Let others offer different ones and let the many contend. The historians we should be wary of are those that claim they have the definitive truth. Such ‘objective’ historians are little more than secular priests delivering truth from on high. I’ll take Mantel’s style of history any day because she does not ask us to believe verbatim, only to imagine.   

I said earlier that Mantel understood class. By that I meant the grubby jockeying for power between competing classes that goes on relentlessly in all nations and at all times. It is not so fashionable to talk these days of the struggle between classes; the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but that is exactly what was in play during both the English and French revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And in all Mantel’s historical novels the reader is left in no doubt that it is the bourgeoisie that is gaining the upper hand. Yes, they use the anger and violence of the embryonic proletariat, but it is a bourgeois property revolution that is taking place. Mantel is in no doubt about this. One of her characters explains;

‘They wish to establish an aristocracy of the rich, of merchants and of men of property. If I had the choice I would prefer the old regime; the nobles and the priests had some virtues, and these men have none. What do the Jacobins say? It is necessary to put a check on these greedy and depraved men; under the old regime the nobles and the priests made a barrier that they could not pass. But under the new regime there is no limit to their ambitions; they would starve the people. It is necessary to put some barriers in their way, and the only thing to do is to call out the mob.’ P604/05

What a crystal clear picture of the three contending classes; the old nobility who displayed on occasion some paternalistic concern for the poor, the nascent proletariat (the mob) who could be used and then discarded as needs dictate, and the emerging merchant class, the bourgeoisie, which Mantel is able to paint to such devastating effect in all her historical novels. Mantel puts the matter concretely;

‘But I suppose you will not want to know about our new dining table – you will want to know who is sitting in the new Assembly, Lawyers, naturally. Propertied men, like myself.’ P394

Two hundred and twenty-five years later and those same propertied men are still ruling the roost; the Masters of the Universe; and they ply their trade on the world’s stock exchanges, in the board rooms of the global corporations and in the backrooms of the ‘too big to fail’ investment banks. Read Mantel’s historical novels, whether the setting is London or Paris and you get a sense of just how this class of property owners, lawyers, bankers and accountants emerged.

For a relatively slow reader like me it took a good many weeks to get through Mantel’s French tour de force, but what a pleasure it was. And like her two Cromwell novels, I was left pining for more. The constant chopping and changing of narrative, of tense and of form, sometimes in mid-sentence, left me floundering in places, but not once was I tempted to abandon the work. On the contrary, Mantel’s clever literary devices merely served to keep one hooked to the very end. Thank you Ms Mantel, the effort was most definitely worth it.

End JPK Copyright, 20/7/15

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Last Updated ( Monday, 20 July 2015 09:02 )