Insights into Facts: Hilary Mantel's Spectacular Realism

Patrick Bahners (c) Annette Hauschild/OSTKREUZ 2019


Vienna Public History Lecture II (2023)

Patrick Bahners

7 November 2023, 19h, in the Main Ceremonial Hall at Vienna University


Welcome Address: Christina Lutter (Dean)

Introduction: Marko Demantowsky


The three novels by Hilary Mantel (1952-2022) about Thomas Cromwell (ca. 1485-1540), "Wolf Hall" (2009, German: "Wölfe"), "Bring Up the Bodies" (2012, "Falken"), and "The Mirror & the Light" (2020, "Spiegel und Licht") feature an unlikely hero: a bureaucrat, careerist, and organizer of judicial executions. The First Minister of King Henry VIII provided his lord with the legal reasons and the statutory means for the English version of the Reformation: the state absorbed the church by having the Protestant-converted king rid himself of his Catholic queen.

Mantel's readers become entangled in these plans: the author confides in us, so much so that we almost become complicit with Cromwell. We look over his shoulder, believing to know him better than even his office staff because we even gain insight into the operations of the ministerial mind. The theme of the trilogy is, using a 19th-century catchphrase, realpolitik, the transition of rule to this-worldliness, autonomy, and flexibility. The form that Hilary Mantel finds for this not entirely new story from the beginning of the modern world in the 16th century is remarkably innovative: an escalation of realism that dispels the suspicion that the historical novel is merely a construct of its own time, incapable of conjuring the sensuality of the past.

Ironically, the Tudor Revolution in state administration, familiar to specialist historians as dry textbook material, proves to be a cornucopia of spectacle creation. However, Mantel does not let her imagination run wild. On the contrary, she adheres as closely as possible to the given, to the facts as determined by historical science, much like Thomas Cromwell. The state's secret becomes public property: the lecture examines the method of this seductive cultural history of politics and questions Hilary Mantel's political intent.

Further Reading

  • Ranke, Leopold 1859 (2013): Englische Geschichte vornehmlich im sechszehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert. Erster Band. Darin: "Zweites Buch: Versuche einer abgesonderten Consolidation des Königreichs in weltlicher und geistlicher Beziehung", S. 119–286. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot.
  • Elton, Geoffrey 1977: "Thomas Cromwell Redivivus", in: Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, Bd. 68, S. 192–208. Nachdruck: G. R. Elton, Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government, Bd. 3: Papers and Reviews 1973–1981, 1983 (online 2010), S. 373-390. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Duffy, Eamon 2020: A People’s Tragedy. Studies in Reformation. Darin: Writing the Reformation: Fiction and Faction, S. 196–227. London: Bloomsbury.



Patrick Bahners, born in 1967, joined the Feuilleton section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper after studying history, English literature, and philosophy in 1989, where he has been the responsible editor for the humanities since 2016. He was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and a Dahrendorf Guest Professor at the University of Konstanz. In addition to political non-fiction books (most recently: "Die Wiederkehr. Die AfD und der neue deutsche Nationalismus," Stuttgart 2023), he has published essays on the history of historiography from Tacitus to Hans-Ulrich Wehler.

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