Down a foul, narrow lane I make my way, jostled by thieves, prostitutes and labourers, swerving round the busy broom of the street sweeper. In my ears, the rise and fall of the banter of Irish immigrant labourers, the roaring of the vagrant, the coercive cry of the street vendor. A darting child takes my hand and pulls me down a still narrower alley, leading me left and right across sewage-logged courtyards, past paper-stuffed windows and along damp, bulging walls, into a low-ceilinged room, the stench of mould and human waste the air breathed by men and women dressed in rags. Home in the day to three families, at night the cramped hovel is the bedroom of more.
Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of London, has transplanted me to the area around St Giles-in-the-Fields in the mid-19th century. His book, published 12 years ago, is entitled London, A Biography.
Had he and his publisher chosen the more workaday ‘London, a history’, I doubt I would have had the enthusiasm for reading it that was sparked by the single word ‘biography’.
The idea of the city as a person, rather than a place, started to bring to life its buildings, river and streets even before I had turned to the black and white drawing reproduced as a double page spread inside the book’s front cover. It shows ‘Seven phases in the evolution of Old London Bridge, 1209 to 1831’. Here would be character, mutability, a light shone on the visible and covert layers of vibrant city life.
Despite my eagerly anticipated reading of a book by an author whose fiction I admire, precisely for its gift of depicting the same city in the years after the Great Fire or during the age of enlightenment, I confess to some disappointment. For during the 12 years that London, A Biography has sat on my shelf unread (for lack of time, not lack of good intentions), Hilary Mantel has researched and written Wolf Hall, Fourth Estate has published it and I have read it twice within the same six month period.
This feeling of being somehow let down is one most readers (and writers) will recognise: keen anticipation followed, perhaps 20, perhaps 50 pages in, by an admission that you have not found quite what you expected. The reasons for this experience must be as numerous as the readers and the books they choose, only to put them back on the shelf.
The historical fiction of the 1950s – Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, Anya Seton’s Katherine – enticed me into the courts of kings in my most voracious teenage reading years two decades after the height of the popularity of the genre in the years after the Second World War. The books’ brisk narrative, credible dialogue and careful period detail have, even now, stood the test of time: both are still in print.
So what is it that Hilary Mantel has done with her writing that so successfully conjures up time and place? In Wolf Hall, she has created a voice which combines the words of our own age in ways which in tone and feel transport the reader to the age of Thomas Cromwell. The vocabulary and sentence structure could scarcely be more simple. There is no sense of struggle with syntax or spelling as a hoped-for short cut to a sense of historical authenticity.
Here, for example, is Henry VIII on his summer progress around England in 1530, Cromwell now in the ascendant as a favoured adviser: ‘If he (Cromwell) wants him (the king), he (Cromwell) has to chase him (the king), and if he (Cromwell) is sent for, he (Cromwell) goes. Henry visits…his friends in Wiltshire, in Sussex, in Kent, or stays at his own houses, or the one he has taken from the cardinal.’ (The brackets are mine.)
The divine right of the monarch – to rule, to command, to brook no challenge, to do just as he pleases – is roundly yet economically conveyed. The way in which sentences are broken and paced suggests to me that punctuation – the comma alone in this example – has a more significant role to play than its modest profile may at first suggest, both in this sentence and in the book as a whole.
To pass the time until 10 May, when Bring up the Bodies, the first of two Wolf Hall sequels goes on sale, I shall continue to ponder the relative merits of style and content for writers recreating the past, and devote myself to searching for larks’ tongues, an ingredient in Hilary Mantel’s contribution to the London Review of Book’s forthcoming book of recipes.
The ingredient much prized in ancient Rome is, according to a tweet by the literary magazine dated 1 April, to be served in the 21st century on ciabatta. The fabrication of a mischievous social networker – or the start of a quest for the obscure that may pose a particular challenge in a part of Britain that, historically, is renowned for its pork butchers?