How Did He Die? Alas, He Died of Plot

Since I’ve been reading both Hilary Mantel and Heresy, the book given away with it, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction. Until Mantel came along this was not a genre I’d read much, not since going through a Georgette Heyer phase in my teens at least. But along came Wolf Hall and of course I had to read that, and then its sequels. I don’t think it’ll start me reading other historical fiction, though you never know; when I struck out into the unknown terrain of Rebus’s Edinburgh I had no idea that it would lead me to Peter May, Nicci French and Peter James. So we’ll see.

The thing about historical fiction is that unlike crime fiction (unless you choose to write about an actual crime) the plot is already there. History is already written and unless you play about on the borders of fantasy you can’t have Henry VIII sticking with Katharine of Aragon or Elizabeth I marrying Francis Bacon. Historical fiction sticks to the facts and plays around them; so with Thomas Cromwell Mantel takes the known facts and from them constructs a character utterly unknown to us until that point. The plot is there but the characters are all to play for.

Not so S J Parris. Yes, she takes a world where Protestantism is still struggling to establish itself, where Catholics are being weeded out and brutally murdered; and centres in this world the character of Giordano Bruno, himself a Catholic visiting Oxford to give a lecture on the Copernican view of the universe. Yet where Mantel entirely enters her world, lives in it, inhabits her characters and thus allows us to live there too for a span, Parris’s characters are little more than ciphers awaiting the dispensations of the plot. There is no reason why any of them should die, apart from reasons of plot. Why did so-and-so die? He died of plot. Two characters have already died of plot and I suspect there are many more to come. Basically this is Agatha Christie in Elizabethan Oxford, and the research is front and centre: whereas Mantel’s historical details are seamlessly woven into the narrative, Parris gives us great wodges of exposition until like a tormented Catholic we cry ‘enough! No more!’

There are difficulties at times with Mantel’s style – it can be a little convoluted but it is never, ever clunky. She knows the effect she wants to achieve and like an artist applies layer upon layer to build up a complex and subtle effect. Parris, on the other hand, tells without showing and her dialogue is lengthy and at times much too modern.

I’ve been perhaps a little hard on Heresy. After all, I’m still reading it, so it has passed at least the first test of any book. And why am I still reading it? Because I want to know what happens; in other words, because of Plot. (And it is only fair to point out that others have enjoyed the books – there’s a series, apparently – much more than I.)

Kirk out