Reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I was reminded of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both historical novels track the transformation of their worlds—in the former the transformation of the English state by a king and his advisors, in the latter, the transformation of vast North American forests into wastelands, facilitated by frontiersmen encroaching on Native American lands, and then by corporations, through the ideas and activities of solicitors, accountants, and managers.
New worlds require new people, new structures, new ways of thinking. These are not consciously established at first, but slowly worked into seemingly intractable systems through novel attitudes, unprecedented actions, and groundbreaking laws. A historian can nimbly describe those emerging styles of being, structures, and ways of thinking, but the historical novel uniquely offers the reader the textures of daily life in which such transformations occur: terror and violence, love and hope, the affirmation or erosion of social and cultural values, in a gesture, a passing remark, a dream, the memory of a flower or painting.
Such textures shape man and woman, the world. As Mantel writes, “The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”