"The historical Cromwell is an opaque figure, which is most likely why Mantel is interested in him: the less is truly known, the more room for a novelist ...."
" .... Historical fiction has many pitfalls, multiple characters and plausible underwear being only two of them. How should people talk? Sixteenth-century diction would be intolerable, but so would modern slang; Mantel opts for standard English, with the occasional dirty joke, and for present-tense narration much of the time, which keeps us right there with Cromwell as his plots and Mantel's unfold. How much detail – clothes, furnishings, appliances – to supply without clogging up the page and slowing down the story? Enough to allow the reader to picture the scene, with lush fabrics and textures highlighted, as they were at the time. Mantel generally answers the same kinds of question that interest readers in court reports of murder trials or coverage of royal weddings. What was the dress like? How did she look? Who really went to bed with whom? Mantel sometimes overshares, but literary invention does not fail her: she's as deft and verbally adroit as ever.
We read historical fiction for the same reason we keep watching Hamlet: it's not what, it's how. And although we know the plot, the characters themselves do not. Mantel leaves Cromwell at a moment that would appear secure: four of his ill-wishing enemies, in addition to Anne, have just been beheaded, and many more have been neutralised. England will have peace, though it's "the peace of the hen coop when the fox has run home". But really Cromwell is balancing on a tightrope, with his enemies gathering and muttering offstage. The book ends as it begins, with an image of blood-soaked feathers.
Always on the look out for pithy observation of historical fiction, the real thing, as opposed to that bad money driving out good "historical romance," it was a double treat to see this, and have it be written by Margaret Atwood, whose works I so admire and enjoy.