Historical fiction is elevated to a work of art in the hands of Hilary Mantel, author of many books, including the 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost and a three-book fictional account of Thomas Cromwell that won her two Booker Prizes. The final installment in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, was released earlier this year. While Mantel’s focus on royals—and the bodies they inhabit—has remained in the fictional sphere, her new book, Mantel Pieces, out this month from Fourth Estate, collects her essays and memoirs on the ever intriguing subject. “Some people feel reverence and others feel merely entertained, but we are all fascinated by the spectacle,” says Mantel. “How are royal bodies different from ours? Can a body become royal? Can it stop being a royal?” Here, the British writer’s top three books exploring this theme.
Last Curtsey: The End of the English Debutante, by Fiona MacCarthy
For decades until 1958, well-bred English gals “came out” as marriageable after being presented to the sovereign, wearing white dresses and their best tiaras. The weird ritual that began the high-society “season” is explored by Fiona MacCarthy in her witty social history Last Curtsey. What happened when the present Queen ended the ceremony and the royal body vanished? The gals waltzed on, as they do to this day, curtsying at the Queen Charlotte’s Ball to a large iced cake.
The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England, by Ann Wroe
In 1491, an elegant and mysterious young man laid claim to the English throne, his invasion plans backed by European monarchs. He claimed to be one of the “Princes in the Tower,” disappeared years before and presumed dead. But the man wasn’t royal—he was, he later admitted, the son of a Flemish boatman. Ann Wroe’s beautiful book The Perfect Prince explores the enigma of this royal imposter, who before a sad and violent end threatened to dethrone the Tudor dynasty.
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, by Helen Castor
If kings are the image of God, our ancestors asked, what are queens? In She-Wolves, historian Helen Castor explores the lives of women whose royal bodies were sites of conflict and contradiction. Eloquent and authoritative, Castor shows how transgressive power can be real and sustained.