En Route to Wolf Hall

February 9, 2010 at 1:50 am (Uncategorized)

Another sleepless night ended at 5:55 am, when I got up, dressed and went walking along the beachfront with a friend and her eternally grateful dog. T walks at 6 am or not at all; with three small children, a husband and a job all demanding her time and attention, sunrise has become “her time,” and if I want to see her, sunrise it is. Never a morning person, I was on especially shaky ground without the buffer of a good night’s sleep, but the moment I left the apartment and caught sight of the deep coral pinks spilling across the sky, flooding the Pacific in a kind of Paradise Sunrise, like something from a leading paint brand, well, I promptly forgot my crabbiness and my weeping tired eyes and just thought, “Glorious.”

It was lovely. What a stunning time of day. I don’t say I mean to start getting out of bed at the crack of dawn on a daily basis – who am I kidding – but you know, it’s probably far better than lying awake cursing the fact. If I could only sleep… if only I could sleep, I’d quite like to see more sunrises. And I’d like to see more of T.

Llew was still sleeping when I returned, luxuriating in yet ANOTHER call for jury duty. Because he didn’t have to front up until 9 am for selection, we were able to have a swim and then take breakfast together in the courtyard as the light changed and the sun continued to climb. Breakfast is something we usually only do together of a weekend: Llew’s one of those, ‘What? Food? First thing? Ugh, how could you?’ people, so generally doesn’t eat breakfast through the week. He doesn’t seem to mind the idea so much after a swim; I think he just has to satisfy himself that he’s done something first. Me, I want feeding immediately. Otherwise I start snapping and snarling. But it was very pleasant out there this morning; I’ve stewed the rhubarb from the farmers’ market, and it’s a delicious addition to muesli, almonds and yoghurt. Llew licked his bowl clean: most gratifying.

So now to Wolf Hall. I’m missing it a bit, actually… about an hour ago I was standing in the kitchen, making a (second) coffee and thinking about it, and I was unpleasantly surprised to realise there was no more left for me to read. At least not for the time being. I know Hils is hard at the sequel, and that’s a happy thought indeed. Come on, Mistress, harder, faster, get cracking!  It seems Mantel’s managed that rare thing of combining the careful discipline of historical accuracy with the saucy freedom of vivid invention, and the result feels both educational and daring.

The times are mad. Disease and superstition run rife, rumour mills work overtime, and the political squabbles, prurient fantasies and religious differences among the privileged few make for an alarming, endlessly entertaining display of human excess, opportunism and stunning stupidity. Mantel’s attention to detail is addictive; Thomas Cromwell, our hero if not history’s, fondles fabrics, weaves and stitches like they are Braille objects; he speaks the language of common cloth, luxurious silks and velvet, and his appreciation and knowledge of their worth, their heft and telling dye, is a subtle bleed through the novel that becomes part of the reader’s instruction. These details matter, he seems to say. They tell us something of the world, and something of the wearer. He misses nothing.

Thomas Cromwell’s ascension through the political and social ranks of the day – the 1530s, very much a closed club, chaps, keep out the vermin – is hands-down, flat-out remarkable, and the novel’s worth reading just for the insight into his invented (or what feels more like recovered, excavated) psychology. Mantel burrows in there like a determined mole, setting up shop in a dead man’s earhole like there’s no place she’d rather be  – is there anything this writer can’t do? I think the other thing that struck me (one of the many things, I should say) is that there’s so much compassion in her portrait of these tumultuous, often miserable times – arch enemies are never without redeeming features, including a sort of grudging camaraderie from among the men who would ideally see Cromwell minus his gruff, unlovely head – even they can’t help but respect his meteoric climb, from the tip of his violent father’s blacksmith boot all the way to Henry VIII’s regal right hand. It is astonishing, deeply impressive stuff. And it was a dramatic time to decide your own destiny; the Boleyn family and Henry’s obsession with marrying Anne altered the course of England’s history, and our man Cromwell was, improbably, there on centre stage. As a powerful and skilled operator, one suspects Cromwell preferred acting unseen, but now he’s been caught by Mantel’s probing light, and I daresay even he would approve of the angle at which she has him stepping out, squinting slightly against the long shadow of these great many years. It is a masterwork; truly great.

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14 Comments

  1. Norwichrocks said,

    I’ve just used part of one of my Christmas amazon.co.uk vouchers to buy Wolf Hall on the strength of that review. 🙂

  2. doctordi said,

    Pressure! What if you don’t like it?! Actually, scrap that. Not possible.

  3. Pete said,

    My dad has been instructed to read this and will probably sit on it for a year. But I will read it eventually. Lovely review. And I’m interested to find out more about that 16th century psychology.

    • doctordi said,

      I think this is retired judge fodder for sure – I bet your dad eats it up, Pete. After all, Cromwell was a lawman himself.

      Yes, I think you’d be really interested in that aspect of it. How Henry, for instance, could insist that a marriage of twenty years that produced a child was never a legal marriage… how did he convince himself of this? I don’t believe anyone, least of all Cromwell, actually agreed, but people died for objecting to what was a patently ludicrous assertion on the part of the regent, and all in all, it’s pretty loopy stuff.

  4. charlotteotter said,

    Spot on Di! It’s the compassion. I hadn’t put my finger on it. The book is redolent with compassion – and of course imagination and passion – which is what takes it beyond a typical well-researched piece of historical fiction.

    • doctordi said,

      It really is, isn’t it? Yes, agreed, Charlotte, there’s much else to recommend it, but it has such a compassionate spirit, and I wonder if that’s what’s come of her task, of taking a man whom history recalls unkindly and making us care and cheer for him; I wonder if that didn’t inform her whole way of seeing. Perhaps in looking for the other side of the Cromwell story, she was better able to see the other side of everyone’s.

  5. litlove said,

    I really really wanted to read this… and then several people I know who have similar tastes didn’t get on with it and now… Well, I have a copy and I WILL read it and I’m very glad to know you loved it. It’s probably a question of finding just the right moment for it.

    • doctordi said,

      LL, I’d love to know why not – what didn’t they get on with? There is a sometimes confounding use of pronouns. Sometimes Cromwell is the ‘he’ – most times – but sometimes it’s whichever ‘he’ he is speaking to, and if one’s not paying attention, keeping track of who ‘he’ is becomes quite tiring. But that’s probably my chief criticism, and what’s a confusing pronoun between friends? Yes, on the whole it does require decent concentration, so it’s not ideal reading for all occasions, but a couple of days of filthy weather? Well! Light a fire, make a cup of tea and curl up with Cromwell!

  6. kate said,

    Are you making us wait to hear Llew’s feedback because he made you wait? 🙂

    • doctordi said,

      Laughing – no, not at all, Kate! I was too shattered yesterday to tackle it, and I guess I’ve also been thinking it through. Don’t worry, it’s coming – a LOT sooner for you than for me!

  7. Grad said,

    As a reading subject, this period of history is my ultimate favorite. Have you read Cromwell by Antonia Fraser? She, too, presents the Lord Protector in a light that is, if not particularly favorable, at least human, fallible, and a little melancholic. I think I’d like Wolf Hall – especially if it’s one in a series.

    • doctordi said,

      Yes, Graddikins, there is definitely a second book coming; Mantel says in an interview she was having a terrible time structuring it until it came to her that it was, in fact, two books. And she’s right, it is. No, this was my first Cromwell read. I don’t read very much historical fiction at all, I’m a contemporary fiction gal, but I think I’ve decided I’ll go anywhere with Hilary Mantel. Yes, this is a very human portrayal – sympathetic, even. I love that twisted optic, because you can just SEE how a man’s reputation might so easily have been sullied for all time back then by one false report or a series of unfortunate confidences. I particularly enjoyed that aspect of Wolf Hall because it operates as a subtle correction, and makes us examine the times and realise just how faulty our judgements can be when we just accept a certain version as fact.

  8. Lilian Nattel said,

    No sleep, a walk on the beach and this wonderful review? I’m impressed!

    • doctordi said,

      Lilian, you should have seen me last night, staggering with exhaustion, walking into walls, stubbing my toe – the walk and the review were really all I had in me!

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