Book Reviews, Literary

The Shadow of the Past: Historical Determinism in Modern Literature

A not-review of The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel, and Plan For the Worst, by Jodi Taylor.

Okay, right from the get-go, I have to apologize for the title, which sounds way more pretentious than I have any right to be. Stipulated. And I probably should get kicked out of whatever book-reviewer’s guild that exists for mashing up these two books, which have no real connection to each other than they came out at about the same time, and I was reading them at about the same time, and they both made me think the same thought about historical determinism.

I am also not using the term “historical determinism” in quite the right way, in the way that a historian would use it. In that manner, historical determinism is defined as a “belief that historical processes have a certain inevitability, based on some fundamental factor.” That, I think, is bushwa. It is the idea that, “well, of course Tom Brady engineered that last-minute drive, that’s what he does.” The lawyerly response to that is, “Objection. Assumes facts not in evidence.” Brady has engineered many fourth-quarter drives, but he’s fallen short other times; it’s not inevitable that he will succeed, and the data backs that up. (I am going to stop talking about Tom Brady now.)

No, I am using “historical determinism” in the way that an author writing historical fiction would, to mean that certain events happen in history that can’t be easily ignored or altered. If you are writing historical fiction about, say, the Battle of the Alamo, that historical fiction is going to have Travis and Bonham and Bowie and Crockett breathing their last. You can’t get around that, not even in fiction. The second you start doing that, you’ve either crossed the border into alternative history, or something else fanciful like time-travel literature. Either way, you’ve left historical fiction behind. (One of the great historical novels about the Texas Revolution, Not Between Brothers, by David Marion Wilkinson, illustrates what I am talking about here; his main character has the opportunity to go and fight in the Alamo, and — somewhat uncharacteristically — turns it down, for the fairly understandable reason that doing so would get him killed, and that would end the book too early.)

cover for Roseanne Cash album “She Remembers Everything”

And, really, when you think about it, this sort of falls into the category of that’s too bad. Some years back, the super-talented Rosanne Cash wrote a bit for The New York Times — I looked, but couldn’t find it online — about a songwriting class she was teaching. A student would write a song, and Cash would suggest to them that they change the story of the song around in a different way. And the student would object, on the grounds of that’s not what really happened. The actual, real-life relationship ended in this certain way, and that’s what the song is about; you can’t just change it. And Cash’s response: of course you can. This is songwriting, not autobiography, you can do whatever you want if it makes the story better. But historical fiction doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t. And sometimes, from a storytelling perspective, that’s too bad.

The Mirror and the Light, the long-awaited third book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, is essentially a long journey towards a known end. Thomas Cromwell, after a long and colorful career, is executed on Tower Hill on July 28, 1540. If this is a spoiler for you for the book, I am very sorry about that, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the trilogy ends with Cromwell’s execution.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC version of WOLF HALL
Rylance is pitch-perfect as Cromwell; I can’t wait to see the next season.

And, not to repeat myself, but that’s too bad. The secret to the three Cromwell books (Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies are the other two, all highly recommended, as is the BBC presentation featuring Mark Rylance, despite the horrid lighting) is not just that Mantel is a brilliant prose stylist (she most certainly is) but more that her Cromwell is such an amazing character. This line gets quoted in just about every review, but it’s just that revealing:

“He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.”

I mean, you’d want the guy who was running the country to be able to do all that, right? Donald Trump couldn’t do any of that. (Joe Biden might have been able to fix a jury thirty years ago.)

Cromwell, of course, famously, has gotten a bad rap over the centuries as being Henry VIII’s hired thug. As Mantel not only features him in a positive light, but portrays him as much more of a modernist than ever he was, the tag of “historical revisionism” gets attached to the trilogy — Google “hilary mantel revisionist history” and you get 17,000 some-odd results, like this one:

Now, Mantel wants to rescue Cromwell from his bad reputation and tell his story, which is all very well, but she does distort the truth. What we get is a sort of propaganda, just as the 16th-century pro-Protestant Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was. We should think of Wolf Hall as fiction — even if it is entertaining fiction. — Andrew Browne, The Telegraph

Well, of course it’s fiction! Of course! That’s the beauty of fiction, you can write it however you please — even if it’s historical fiction. But what you can’t do is change the essential facts of history, and this is where The Mirror and the Light takes the form of a trap.

What Mantel has done is to create a character that is super-smart and intelligent, with a modernistic, pragmatic, Protestant outlook that is very familiar to the current-day reader, because it may be very much like our own, and endowed him with boundless wit, a good deal of empathy due to his rough upbringing and personal setbacks, and the gift of sprezzatura — the Italian art of making it all look easy. Mantel’s Cromwell has talked himself out of countless other problems; he has survived the machinations of Henry’s court so far, and has settled the hash of countless enemies.

<a href="">The Mirror & the Light</a> Book Cover
The Mirror & the Light Fiction Henry Holt and Company 784

Eagerly awaited and eight years in the making, The Mirror & the Light completes Cromwell’s journey from self-made man to one of the most feared, influential figures of his time. Portrayed by Mantel with pathos and terrific energy, Cromwell is as complex as he is unforgettable: a politician and a fixer, a husband and a father, a man who both defied and defined his age.

And now he has to die. And not, you know, just your ordinary death — he has to be sent to the Tower to die for treason. And this has to happen. There would be, you would think, a hundred ways for someone who is as smart and powerful as Mantel’s Cromwell to avoid this; he can’t use any of them. Historical determinism says, sorry, you’re going to die, there’s no way around it.

From a literary perspective — and Mantel’s work is high-end literary fiction, make no mistake — this is fine. Mantel can get just as much mileage out of a doomed Cromwell, brooding in the Tower, begging an absent and silent Henry for mercy. But from a storytelling perspective, Cromwell’s end falls rather flat. Cromwell doesn’t die of hubris, or nemesis, or even something as simple as a political miscalculation. (I should amend that a bit by saying that treachery plays a role, but a small one.) The one thing that finally costs Cromwell his head — his arrangement for Henry to marry Anne of Cleves — is partly due to matters outside of his control (primarily the impulsive surprise that Henry arranges for their first meeting) and partly due to a seeming reluctance to reverse course. Someone as smart and resourceful as Cromwell, with the experience in managing Henry’s desires would — you would think — be able to recognize the danger and do something about it. But Cromwell doesn’t do that; he can’t. Historical determinism has him by the throat.

Historical determinism shows up in time travel, too, although not under that name. If a time-travel story is being honest with itself, it has to recognize that trifling with elements of the past can lead to disruptions in the future; the fading photograph in Back to the Future is a crude illustration of the basic principle. In the time-travel novels of Connie Willis, no matter how carefully you set your trajectory through the past, a mysterious unknown force called “slippage” keeps you from going to times and places where an unwary or malevolent traveler has the ability to muck up the future for good and all. So even if you wanted to reverse one of history’s great crimes by telling Everson Walls to watch out for the leaping catch at the back of the end zone, you can’t. Even if you tried going to Candlestick Park on that fateful day, your time machine would drop you off ten minutes late in Winslow, Arizona.

And that’s too bad.

So the second book I am talking about in this little essay is by one of my personal heroes, a Brit named Jodie Taylor, who started out in self-publishing and made good. She is best known for a very long, involved and rambling series that takes the basic Connie Willis formula and cross-breeds it with Terry Pratchett. The St. Mary’s books (set in a future but very familiar England) involve the antics of what Taylor is pleased to constantly refer to as “tea-sodden disaster magnets,” who — despite what we are constantly told is careful planning — have a track record of stumbling into dangerous historical situations and then running away from them for dear life.

Taylor’s approach to the dictates of capital-H History is similar to Willis’s, but is both more and less mystical. If you go back in time and foul up history in Taylor’s world, one of two things will happen. First, you won’t be able to, in that capital-H History will make sure that you don’t. Somehow. And if that isn’t enough to settle your hash, Taylor invents an even farther-future institution known as the Time Police, who will be more than happy to ruin your entire day for you.

How this works is open not only to interpretation but to the demands of the plot. It is okay (to use an example from this installment) to go back and tour the Tower of London to get a glimpse of the Princes in the Tower, before their mysterious disappearance. That you can do, as long as you take precautions. You can even surreptitiously film them, for historical reference. But if you actively try to change history, then History will retaliate, unless the Time Police get you first. (This is slightly more coherent than other variants on the same principle — like “Quantum Leap,” which allowed for small-scale changes authorized by, well, basically, God, or “Hot Tub Time Machine,” which allows one of its lead characters to basically rewrite history in favor of his friends.)

Anyway, without giving too much away, the entire structure of Plan For the Worst is tied closely to the idea of historical determinism. In Taylor’s case, this results in the characters making bad and wrong decisions because that is what they believe that they are supposed to do at the time. And the only reason that this doesn’t blow up spectacularly in the faces of the characters is that, yup, what they do was exactly what they had done in the past of characters on other timelines. (If this is confusing, then I am sorry about that.)

What I want to do with this little not-review is to not so much critique either book (The Mirror and the Light is perfectly well-done; Plan For the Worst is consistent with the rest of the series, which means that it balances out the silly elements with solid history and tightly-written action scenes) but to point out historical determinism as something for writers to watch out for, and to plan for. If you know something is coming your way as a historical inevitability, best to plan your way around it without having to disturb the fabric of history more than is strictly necessary.