Monday, November 12, 2018

the last book I read

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Ah, the Tudors. *tootly oboe music plays, jester prances around* We all think we know them, especially Henry VIII with his absurd tights and his comical wife-beheading ways. But...*oboe music stops abruptly*...what do we really know?

Well, in the case of Henry VIII, quite a lot actually. But what of his shadowy √©minence grise Thomas Cromwell? The basic details of his association with Henry and the various offices he held are well known, but what was he really like? This is the question Wolf Hall attempts to answer, while also taking us into close proximity with most of the key figures from the era, most notably Henry himself, with much a-roistering and a-doistering, intrigue, strategic matchmaking, betrayal, and the usual occasional public disembowelments and beheadings. It's not for the faint-hearted, still less the loose-headed.

Cromwell's ascent is a pretty unusual and remarkable one, though - son of a drunken and abusive blacksmith, escaped at the earliest possible opportunity to Europe to sign up as a soldier of fortune in various intra-European theatres of war and seek his fortune, which he duly made as a merchant and lawyer before returning to England to set up as a respectable pillar of the community and, eventually, right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey. You're probably mentally picturing Orson Welles here, but we'll come to that a bit later.

Following Wolsey's downfall, which in turn followed his inability to arrange an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon in a way which was also palatable to the head honchos of the Catholic Church, Cromwell moves into Henry's personal orbit and eventually becomes one of his most trusted advisors, especially after helping to facilitate the foundation of the Church of England, and, most importantly, providing an acceptable official validation for Henry's furious rogering of Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell has a personal life as well, of course, and we get some insight into it: he has a happy marriage to Liz Wykys (this is how the book renders her surname, Wikipedia renders it as Wyckes), but Liz and both their daughters die of the sweating sickness in 1529, leaving Cromwell's son Gregory as his only child. He does seem to be cultivating a bit of an affection for Jane Seymour in the second half of the book, but fate has, it turns out, other plans for her.

Being a trusted advisor to Henry involves being at his constant beck and call, and furthermore subject to his whims and mood swings, any one of which could be severe enough to cost you your head. Henry is a highly intelligent man of great energy and charm, but by the time Cromwell comes into his service has been gripped with a monomaniacal obsession: the production of a male heir. This is what drives him to ditch his wife of 24 years for a younger model (the first of a series), and Cromwell is the man who has to find an acceptably legal way of bringing it about.

The difficulty with describing the events of Wolf Hall is that they - the major historical ones at least - are extremely well known. Few periods in history are more thoroughly chewed-over than the period of Henry VIII's multiple marriages, the last five of which were crammed into a ten-year period between 1533 and 1543. So the historical novelist has to find something new to do with the material, and in this case that is to focus on a central but ill-documented figure, Thomas Cromwell, a fascinating and enigmatic figure whose rise to power is remarkable in an era of low social mobility. If you weren't born a nob then your chances of gaining access to the king's inner circle were pretty slim, so Cromwell most have had some exceptional personal qualities. As he is portrayed here he is regarded with great affection by the members of his family and household, despite his fearsome reputation as a facilitator of the king's wishes.

The other thing that makes considering Wolf Hall in isolation difficult is the large number of other works of art that portray events from the period and feature characters that also appear here, Cromwell himself included. So there's The Tudors, Anne Of The Thousand Days, Henry VIII And His Six Wives, and most notably to me, A Man For All Seasons. As I said in this earlier post which references Wolf Hall (and expresses some doubt on when I'd get round to reading it, which I suppose is fair enough given that it's taken me nine years) the portrayal of Cromwell in that film (played by Leo McKern) is fairly unsympathetic, whereas More is portrayed as wise, patient and generally saintly. In Wolf Hall, however, More, while clearly a brilliant man, is something of an insufferable prig and a hypocrite perfectly happy to preach peace and tolerance while sanctioning the vicious torture and public execution of heretics. Far from actively seeking his conviction and execution, the version of Cromwell portrayed here makes every effort to persuade More to bend and sign the pledge that the King wants him to sign so that he can then quietly retire to his books.

Wolf Hall of course had its own TV adaptation, with Mark Rylance portraying Cromwell. Those who haven't seen it should be warned that it is in fact an adaptation of material from both Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, so SPOILER ALERT if you haven't read the second book and you're also completely ignorant of the events of a pretty well-documented period of British history. For what it's worth I think Rylance, fine actor though he undoubtedly is, is a bit fine-featured for Cromwell, who is supposed to have had a rather thuggish appearance. By contrast Leo McKern is probably a bit pudgy for Cromwell as portrayed here. This brief snippet put me in mind of an immortal bit of narrative from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace:

As I rounded the corner, I felt muscular and compact, like corned beef.
For what it's worth I pictured Cromwell as looking a bit like Michael Elphick.

Anyway, enough of that nonsense. This is never less than compulsively readable, despite taking 650 pages to chronicle the events of around six years. There are points where you might wish things would crack on a bit, as enjoyable as it all is. All the previous Mantels I've read (including Eight Months On Ghazzah Street which appeared on this list in 2010) have been fairly slim and efficient in getting their story across; there is just a suspicion of a bit of flab here. None of which troubled the Booker committee, clearly, as they awarded it the Man Booker Prize for 2009 (its successor Bring Up The Bodies won again in 2012; the third volume remains in production). Wolf Hall therefore joins the list of Booker winners on this blog which includes Midnight's Children, The Sea, The Conservationist, G., Hotel Du Lac, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Gathering.

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