I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to her historical novel, Wolf Hall. One of the reasons why Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies feel alive, relevant and real is because Hilary Mantel uses contemporary language and allows her characters to think and speak in a modern idiom. They don’t speak as though they’re auditioning for a gig at a new theme park, Ye Olde Englande. Her characters are real people whose needs and motivations aren’t alien to ours, even if their ideas about sanitation and entertainment are.
One sentence, however, distracted me: “A generation on, lapses must be forgiven, reputations remade; otherwise England cannot go forward …” Hilary Mantel, Chapter 1, Bring Up the Bodies.
England cannot go forward? There are echoes of that phrase our contemporary politicians chant, “move forward”. At first I thought that the brain-eating zombies of poli-speak and business buzz had travelled so far that even prize-winning novelists had succumbed, doomed to stumble about moaning “think outside the box”, “in terms of”, “downsizing”, “key learnings”, “strategic objectives”, “impactful”, “on message” and “moving forward, must optimise brain intake.”
If Thomas Cromwell’s England is “going forward” in 1535, what’s next? Will King Henry VIII issue a Change Management Strategy for ending his marriage with Anne Boleyn?
I don’t think Mantel has allowed an anachronism to slip into her novel. I think she is happy for us to draw parallels between the world of Thomas Cromwell and our own, in much the same way that Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose used mediaeval Italian history as a parable about twentieth century Italy. Thomas Cromwell is a man of his time, but recognisable in our own. He is the forefather of our ‘media advisors’, ‘reputation managers’ and ‘brand champions’, with an impressive investment portfolio. I salute Mantel’s ability to get under his skin, and ours.