Sunday, 24 January 2010
Have you been on the edge of your seats waiting to see if I've been keeping up the resolutions?
I have! Perhaps not surprisingly the most successful one has been the reading better books. Just before Christmas I bought Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel's Booker prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor. I read it all through Christmas and New Year, and I loved it. I do think you need to have some sort of nodding acquantance with Henry's reign and some of the characters involved to get the most out of it - eg when you meet a sly, eavesdropping page called Mark Smeaton, it adds something if you recognise the name as one of the men who was tortured and later executed for his alleged affair with Anne Boleyn. It's also told in a very clipped, elliptical way which could be a little impenetrable if you didn't know anything at all about the period. That's not to say that you couldn't read it without any prior knowledge: just that the more you know, the more you would enjoy, I think.
It was interesting for me since it completely counters the Catholic perspective of Cromwell as the evil fixer who made Henry divorce Katherine of Aragon, set him up with the strumpet Anne Boleyn and burned the saintly More. This Cromwell is a very attractive, even lovable, character who's risen to power from sheer ability rather than aristocratic lineage - an unprecedented way of doing things. In contrast, More is seen as well-meaning and principled, but relishes his self-mortification (and mortifying others - he supervised a lot of torture of heretics) a bit too much - there's a real dark side and osbstinacy to his character that makes total sense here.
The way the author thinks herself into the period is pretty extraordinary, in fact I would almost call it mediumistic. There are details there that just have the utter ring of truth: people being short-tempered during Lent because of the fasting; a character playing idly with the ruffles in his doublet, pushing them in and out of the silk lining. It's also frequently very funny: when Henry demands, 'You want a king who doesn't fight? You want me to huddle indoors like a sick girl?' Cromwell replies, 'That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes.'
Two quibbles: I'm not sure that anyone as powerful and ruthless as Cromwell was could have been as totally likeable a character as he is made to be here - and I think it was a shame that she ended it so many years before his death (executed, of course, by the then paranoid and crazy Henry, on the same day that Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard). But, apparently a sequel is in the works, and if it is anything like Wolf Hall I can't wait.