Classic Remarks is a meme hosted by Krysta and Brianna at Pages Unbound. Each week, they pose a question about classic works of literature in order for readers to engage in a continuing conversation about elements of classic literature, the literary ‘canon’, and the timelessness of story. If you’re interested in participating, you can find the schedule here.
Not every book is destined to become a classic. Not every book should become a classic. But what books will become classics, destined to be read by people all over the world in generations to come?
For a book to become a classic, it needs to have a few primary factors working for it.
- It needs to be popular in its own time
- It needs to be continuously reprinted
- It needs to be read by the generation that follows
These three factors feed one into the next. If a book isn’t popular when it comes out, it’s not going to be reprinted. If it’s not reprinted, it’s not going to be read by the following generations. If it’s not read by the following generations, it’s not going to become a classic.
So what book do I think is going to become a classic? Well, I’m actually choosing three books. But they’re a trilogy, so I’m counting it as one unit.
“If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, then when can you speak it?”
The Thomas Cromwell trilogy is one of those works that helps to redefine a genre. For a long time, historical fiction was regarded as a genre not to be taken seriously, full of romances featuring English dukes or broad-shouldered and kilted Scotsman from the highlands. Or they were full of tales of queens and princesses, told from a feminist (or “feminist”) perspective with dubious historicity. Or they were stories of generals fighting historical battles, because men obviously didn’t want to read about romances with dukes or hear about feminist theories of history.
Of course, the genre was never only those things, but to both the wider market and the literati, historical fiction– like any genre– is often defined by what parts of the genre make it to the bestseller lists, and is often derided because of it.
Then came Hilary Mantel and a not-so-little historical figure known as Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall was a sensation, winning over both general audiences and literary snobs alike with its story of sixteenth-century politics in the court of Henry VIII, and the common-born lawyer who ended up in the middle of the whole thing. It is an astonishing work of literature, retelling an oft-told tale in such as way that it becomes fresh and new again. There are the glitterati of 1520s England, the movers and shakers, and the people clawing their way to the top by whatever means necessary. All the famous people are there: Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, etc., etc.. But in Wolf Hall, their story is more complex than the narrative that’s been told a thousand times. Their story has become human, their desires sometimes profound and sometimes petty. Their decisions turn on a ha’penny, and though they don’t know it at the time, the tides of history turn with them.
Wolf Hall came out in 2009, and I still hear of popular authors who say things like, “Don’t we all wish we had written Wolf Hall?”, and an aspiring author I know who, upon encountering the novel for the first time, said something like, “I didn’t know people were allowed to write that like”.
The sequel, Bring up the Bodies, was published in 2012, and received the same praise as its predecessor. But while Wolf Hall spans the years from about 1500 to 1535, Bring up the Bodies has a much tighter focus, spanning mere months from autumn of 1535 to spring of 1536. It is primarily about the downfall of Anne Boleyn and the controversial elements surrounding her fall and execution. Was she truly guilty of adultery with the four men who were executed in the days before her death, including her own brother? Was Henry VIII the architect of her fall, or was it all the work of Cromwell himself? What led up to it?
The answers that Mantel presents have their basis in historical fact, but from an angle. Henry wants to be rid of an inconvenient wife, and so Cromwell will see that it is done. He needs men who are guilty, so he finds guity men. But not necessarily guilty as charged. And yet…
“You have always regarded women as disposable, my lord, and you cannot complain if in the end they think the same of you.”
The final installment of the trilogy came out in 2020 to as much acclaim as its predecessors. It tells of the final years of Cromwell’s life, from the morning of Anne Boleyn’s execution on May 19, 1536, to his own death in 1540. It tells of his rise and rise and rise to the heights of power and beyond, until his sudden and dramatic fall. After Anne Boleyn, there is poor Jane Seymour (who, it’s said, had the good sense to die before Henry tired of her, thus making her the perfect woman, his ‘rose without a thorn’), and then Anne of Cleeves whose disastrous and brief marriage to Henry helped to sow the seeds of Cromwell’s destruction. And even though Katherine Howard didn’t marry Henry until after Cromwell’s death, she lurks in the background with her youthful, wide-eyed glances.
Some have complained that the middle part of The Mirror and the Light is overlong, that it rambles, that it needs editing, and yet I never want it to end, because I know what happens next.
And even though I know what happens next, I’m still surprised by the turns in the events, as though I somehow expect Mantel to have changed the story to make things turn out for the best for Cromwell, for Tom Crumb, who looks like a murderer and is thought of as a thug, but who is entirely human while dealing with other humans all the way through.
Though Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies both won the Booker Prize (becoming one of just four authors who have done so, and the first woman), and though The Mirror and the Light was favored to win again (giving Mantel her third Booker, making her the first author ever to do so, and making the Thomas Cromwell trilogy the first trilogy to do so), the 2020 Booker’s judging panel didn’t even put The Mirror and the Light on the short list, a move that angered many and disappointed others. But, c’est la vie. Dame Hilary herself stated that she wouldn’t feel snubbed if she wasn’t chosen. She already has a mantelpiece full of awards, and we have a complete trilogy that brings the Tudor court to life like nothing before. Future authors will be hard-pressed to match it, and unless its popularity experiences a fall as swift and sudden as, say, Anne Boleyn’s, then it’s sure to become a future classic.
“And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marshes of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug in to unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.”Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall