‘Already there are too many books in the world. There are more every day. One man cannot hope to read them all.’
Henry VIII, p. 472
The world can never have too many books. However, Henry’s exasperated claim that we can never hope to read all of them is, scarily, very true. This considered, it’s becoming progressively more important for me to read really good books.
Although it’s impossible to guarantee you’ll like something, with certain authors or themes you know you’re on to a winner; in my humble opinion Hilary Mantel is one such author.
Like many people my age in the UK, I studied the Tudors at least twice, maybe even three times, at school, something which ordinarily ruins a subject for pupils. This period of history however, never fails to be the most sumptuous, filthiest, most dramatic going; beheadings, burnings, fancy clothes, feasts and sex; now how could you ever get bored with that?
As with plenty of books, I’m coming to Wolf Hall far too late really; although there’s something to be said about reading a book like this after the hoohah has died down. (I’m taking the same approach with Bring up the Bodies; waiting patiently for the paperback edition to be released…)
Hilary Mantel’s (soon to be) trilogy, ending with The Mirror and the Light, will eventually chart the rise from obscurity and eventual demise of one of history’s most controversial characters; Thomas Cromwell. Ordinarily painted in a fairly unflattering light, Mantel’s more balanced portrait delves into both his public and imagined private life. Cromwell became a key player in Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and the highs and lows, in this particular novel, of his relationship with the notorious Anne Boleyn. Normally portrayed as a ruthless and entirely manipulative man, in stark contrast to his contemporary Thomas More; Hilary Mantel plays with convention and, quite convincingly, imagines a more realistic 16th century world; where even Saints have their flaws and where ordinary men must sometimes abandon their morals to save their neck and serve their King.
Historical fiction that manages to steer away from the fluffy, über-sexed up stereotype is right up my street, especially when it’s done well and Hilary Mantel is an absolute master at it. Although I’m no Tudor expert, it certainly seems that she’s done her homework and has a profound understanding of her subject. At the same time, she is careful not to sacrifice her story for the sake of bogging us down in dates and facts, giving us one of those rare occasions where a 600 + page novel leaves us wanting more. Mantel has succeeded in recreating a luxuriant, elaborate and dangerous world, with a vast array of characters (see the ‘cast list’ at the beginning of the book) that, rather than confuse, merely serves to bring this multi-faceted world to life, where something intriguing happens or is said on every single page.
Her powerful descriptions of executions are vomit-inducing:
‘At Smithfield Frith is being shovelled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.’
‘The chains retained the remnants of flesh, sucking and clinging…A man took an iron bar and thrust it through the whole where the woman’s left eye had been.’
Certain scenes, such as the bridal procession of Anne Boleyn are so vibrant and full of movement and colour that the scenes of medieval England almost reminded me of modern day India:
‘At every turn on the route there are pageants and living statues, recitations of her virtue and gifts of gold from city coffers…blossom mashed and minced under the treading feet of the stout sixteen, so scent rises like smoke. The route is hung with tapestries and banners, and at his orders the ground beneath the horses’ hooves is gravelled to prevent slipping, and the crowds restrained behind rails in case of riots and crush’
‘And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city’s uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks’ bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips to show their teeth; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed into their maws, all chewed except for their helpless paddling feet; limestone or leaden, metalled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.’
|Thomas Cromwell by Holbein c. 1533
Most crucially to this novel’s success is the fact that I both liked and believed in Thomas Cromwell and all who surrounded him, both at home and at Court. Avoiding ‘ye olde’ style English, Mantel creates a sense of period in her dialogue without resorting to unreadable language and creates characters who come out with 16th century versions of the kind of nonsense you or I would do. Cromwell is realistic; a working class hero and family man whose care for the young people he has taken under his wing and grief for those he has lost balances well with the more snakish sides to his personality that become more prevalent as the book draws to its conclusion. Wolf Hall, the novel’s namesake and seat of the Seymour family is only mentioned a handful of times throughout the book and does not take a prominent position, though through this clever title (and our own basic knowledge of English history) we know that this is exactly where Henry is headed. It is an unusual thing to know precisely in what direction a story is going before it gets there (e.g. Anne and Cromwell’s eventual executions, among many others) although how Hilary Mantel will arrive there is another question altogether. She kept me glued to the edge of my seat for a good two weeks with Wolf Hall and I absolutely cannot wait to see what she has in store for our anti-hero next.
|‘Arrange your face’