Category Archives: Historical fiction

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

BUTB

I didn’t intend to read Bring Up the Bodies directly after finishing Wolf Hall, but I felt such a sense of withdrawal once Wolf Hall was over that I couldn’t help but turn to its fellow Booker-winning sequel. I forced myself to focus on finishing the latest draft of my own book first, with the reward of BUTB once it was done, but I got about halfway in before losing my head and trawling through various Waterstones around London to find Cromwell Part 2. Hey, it’s hard to write when you’re not reading anything. As I said on Twitter, trying to write a book when you’re not reading is like trying to run a marathon without drinking any water. Again, this review is spoiler-y but it’s a story that everyone knows, anyway, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you from reading it.

First of all – what a cool name for a book. It’s a shame the upcoming Cromwell Part 3 has the really naff title ‘The Mirror and the Light’, because there is something supremely awesome about an epic historical novel called ‘Bring Up the Bodies’. The term itself is used near the end of the book as an instruction to bring Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers from custody to be put on trial, yet the word ‘bodies’ instead of ‘men’, ‘accused’ or anything else is harsh and dehumanising. Something about the phrase seems support the bloodlust of the period; you don’t get the sense that these ‘bodies’ will have a fair trial when the gallows are waiting, nor do you feel they’ve had a particularly good run of things so far. Is Cromwell to blame? Very much so. Throughout the novel he is the man bringing up the bodies, finding those who are guilty or can at least be coerced into false confessions to support the king’s interests.

1536 was a big year for Cromwell, politically. After working and striving to rid King Henry VIII of Catherine of Aragon and bringing Anne Boleyn to the throne (seen throughout Wolf Hall), he now has to bin her, as well, while the king falls in love with Jane Seymour and Anne continually fails to produce a male heir. Catherine of Aragon dies fairly early on, but if her death was to result in the clear path Anne Boleyn was expecting, she is sorely disappointed. After she has a miscarriage, Cromwell, in service to the king, has to do all he can to justify an annulment.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still as endearing as ever but the darker edge to his personality that is popularised so often in other historical fiction begins to bleed into his calm demeanour throughout Bring Up the Bodies. His support and affection for Anne has slid away and now, as always, it’s the king he serves completely. He abandons his own gut instincts about Anne’s treatment and the actual crimes committed (if any) and knits together a reason to give Henry the legal right to divorce and execute Anne, as well as some of her spurned lovers. Although he is motivated by loyalty, there is an element of personal revenge to his actions. Still stung by Wolsey’s execution years ago, Cromwell incriminates four men who stood by and later made a mockery of the Cardinal’s demise – and that mockery is very much at the forefront of his mind as he persuades them to confess to sleeping with the queen and plotting the king’s death.

Of course, ‘persuasion’ is a light term – with one man, the musician Mark Smeaton, it’s clear he was tortured at Cromwell’s house, Austin Friars. The description is vague but it’s implied that he suffered at the hands of the Christmas decorations that Cromwell used to enjoy with his family (when they were still alive) – as torture is not permitted, Cromwell later reflects that he’ll have to burn the peacock feathers that were originally used for his daughter Grace’s angel outfit. Given that Austin Friars has always been a happy and vibrant home, it’s quite a shock to see this dark edge to it, the same way it’s shocking to see the edge to Cromwell’s personality that is so often hinted at but seldom explicitly revealed. The use of the Christmas decorations is particularly poignant – Cromwell is using elements of his personal life, ones associated with his own kindness and humanity, to inflict pain on to others. Indeed, he ponders at one point whether the memory of his daughters is slipping away from him, and that without it he’s become a completely different man.

Arguably every one of Mantel’s readers would know the fate of Anne Boleyn, but this doesn’t detract from the masterful sense of fright and tension in the run up to her execution. Even with history behind us, you still read it expecting there to be a catch, an escape, a moment when everything will halt and the queen will be let off the hook. It’s a tragic end for Anne and it unwillingly foreshadows the eventual end of Cromwell, revealing in a stark light what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Henry VIII. Yet another reason to be morbidly excited for The Mirror and the Light.

Was Bring Up the Bodies better or worse than Wolf Hall? I hate to make comparisons, but in a trilogy there can sometimes be a great difference of quality between one or two instalments. Considering Wolf Hall was such a success I’m sure critics were watching to see if Mantel could replicate it, but Bring Up the Bodies certainly stands on its own feet, giving Mantel her second Booker prize in three years. It doesn’t have the same sprawling story as Wolf Hall, which covered many years; in comparison, BUTB only covered a matter of months, with the single, encompassing plotline being one that revolves around the downfall of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s agency in it. It was an easier read – probably for that very reason. Mantel still had her trademark style but the writing was a little tighter, with some specification of the pronoun ‘he’ – you’ll remember in my review of Wolf Hall that I mentioned how carefully you had to concentrate to remember that ‘he’ generally always referred to Cromwell. It seems Mantel’s editors might have flagged that up with her – now you’ll spy the occasional ‘he said: he, Cromwell’. The style is still flawless, however. Critics have deemed Mantel one of our best working writers today, and even when I haven’t read much of her work (I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me, including her brand new volume of short stories), it’s hard to disagree.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, BBC 2 continues to air its adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while I expect the RSC are still strutting around Broadway with their famous plays. Those lucky New Yorkers.

First_look_at_Mark_Rylance_as_Thomas_Cromwell_in_new_pictures_for_Wolf_Hall

At the time of writing this blog post, the BBC drama hasn’t yet reached the Bring Up the Bodies plot, and is still focusing on Wolf Hall. It’s difficult to predict how it will play out. Rylance is not quite the Cromwell I expected from the book – he has a kind of timidity and warmth in his small frame and likeable face that suits the affectionate encounters with his family, but doesn’t sit right in court, somehow. But, at this point in the TV drama, he is only just edging his way in. I look forward to seeing what will happen once he begins his villainous campaign to bring down Anne, and at the end of the last episode (Episode 2; Episode 3 is on this evening), it’s made very clear that revenge is in the forefront of his mind. Can’t wait to see more.

If Parts 1 and 2 are anything to go by then Cromwell Part 3 is going to be fantastic. It looks as if it’ll chronicle the last four years of Cromwell’s life, his mistakes and his downfall, with a meaty political plot running alongside it. After two novels I’ve built up quite an attachment to Cromwell so it will be heartbreaking to see his disgraced end – although who knows how his character may change over the course of the book. Presumably it will also include details of the rise of Cromwell’s beloved son, who marries, fathers children and becomes a very respectable gent from 1537 onwards (all of which is considered to be a credit to his father). That will be a great element of sweetness to the otherwise unpleasant plot – I’ve built up an attachment to Gregory, too. Will Part 3 scoop the Booker as well? Time will tell! I feel sorry for any writers up against Mantel once again (if indeed, it makes the shortlist – although it’s hard to imagine it not doing so).

So – another five-star rating from me on Goodreads. As all good historical fiction should do, it inspired me to delve back into history – not long ago I finished Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of England, which I thoroughly recommend – so there can be no higher praise than that.

[Coming next: Money by Martin Amis]

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Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Hilary-Mantel-Wolf-Hall

Oh crikey, I need to read more Booker winners.

I’m not an historian, nor was I ever particularly good at History at school. My memory of learning about Henry VIII et al. was when I was 12 and we learnt a bit about his reign; I also remember a little rhyme I learnt at primary school:

Henry the Eighth, he had six wives
All of them lived in fear of their lives
Two were beheaded and one of them died
Two were divorced and one survived!

That’s about it. Really intelligent stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of course, I know who Thomas Cromwell is, as an historical figure. I have no doubt that I probably studied him in depth at some point during my school years but before reading Wolf Hall I couldn’t remember much about his life and career. I know he’s generally villainised in popular culture, and some of the reviews of Wolf Hall that I heard before reading the book praised Mantel’s portrayal of the man as someone who is a little more well-rounded and fleshed out than your average two-dimensional scoundrel. I particularly enjoyed a soundbite from Rachel Cooke from the Observer who was so unsettled by this depiction that she was led to remark: ‘I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’.

Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy about Cromwell’s life, won the Man Booker prize in 2009; the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, scooped the prize in 2012 – making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice and perhaps the first sequel to win when its predecessor also won, but I’d have to fact-check that before making any bold claims. The final instalment The Mirror and the Light is due this year, and whether that will give Mantel a Booker hat-trick remains to be seen. It seems absurd to talk about winning the Booker three times in a row as if it’s comparable to potting a ball of paper in a wastepaper basket; I mean, this is the sodding BOOKER, arguably THE most prestigious literary prize in the world. It’s no easy task to win it once, let alone twice. Of course she’ll face stiff competition this year now that they’ve opened the doors to American writers, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Either way, I knew this book was going to be brilliant. With that reputation hovering behind it, how could it not be?

Hard to know if I’m giving you spoilers here as you probably learnt it all at school, but I’ll give you the gist. Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from around 1500 – 1530, with a brief opening chapter about his life as a teenager before it skips forward to his life at Austin Friars in 1527, married and with children, and in service to the Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Very little is known about Cromwell’s early life and this is echoed in the book; he reminisces occasionally about his past and his escape abroad from a violent father but he doesn’t know his own birth date, nor is he completely sure of his age. Fairly early on we see the downfall of the Cardinal who wouldn’t agree with annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Queen Katherine, as she is referred to in the book) so he could marry Anne Boleyn – Mantel seems to be relying on her readers’ own historical knowledge here, as the reason for his downfall is never explicitly stated in the book. From then on we see the ‘rise and rise’ of Thomas Cromwell, who did indeed rise above the potentially damaging association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and, using his wit and political know-how, became the king’s right hand man.

Mantel paints a vivid picture of 16th Century England – or rather, a decent picture through the eyes of someone who lives in it and hasn’t seen it any other way. That is a triumph; there is no modern hand hovering over this novel, nor is there any sense of hindsight, which helps keep the reader absorbed in the characters’ immediate stories. I’m no real judge myself but critics have praised Mantel’s dedication to historical accuracy, particularly with such a huge cast of characters – so big that it requires its own list at the beginning of the book that takes up pages and pages, which I had to refer back to continually while I read. Of course, there are certain elements that seem ridiculous to the 21st Century eye. One of the main being the sexual politics at play, and how much worth a woman’s virginity has, even to someone as high up the social ladder as the king. The entire political tension revolves around the idea that Queen Katherine MIGHT not have been a virgin when they wed, and Anne Boleyn definitely is (though you’re never sure). There is, of course, an obscene amount of pressure placed on Henry’s wife – whoever she is at the time – to produce a son, and therefore an heir, for him. Knowing as we do that Henry had no legitimate sons that lived to reach adulthood, it’s particularly wince-inducing to see him despair over and over again.

The sexual politics may seem old fashioned but, echoing the words of another Observer reviewer (‘[the book is] a dark mirror held up to our own world’), they aren’t entirely out of place to a modern reader. At one point, Mary Shelton comments to Cromwell that when a woman produces a son, the man takes the praise, but when she fails or it is evident that one of the party is infertile, it is the woman’s fault. This kind of one-sided parenthood still rings hollow in the modern age, with all kinds of pressure placed on women as mothers, whether it’s raising a child as a single parent when the parents have split or having to deal with the stigma and consequences of abortion. All of this because of the simple biological fact that the baby happens to grow inside the woman, not the man. We’ve moved on from the Tudor times but we’re not out of the woods yet.

Despite the sheer amount of characters (I counted the list – there are 96), the characterisation is strong. Obviously we get the best picture of Cromwell, who is an incredible literary protagonist simply because of the amount of depth he has. My copy of Wolf Hall included an interesting interview with Mantel at the back, in which she said she chose to focus on Cromwell because of pure curiosity as to how a blacksmith’s son could rise up to such prestige, and also from a letter he’d penned that revealed he had a strong sense of humour. She mentions that biographers don’t touch on his personal life at all, and while he can be seen as something of a wolf in court, letters from the time suggest his household was pleasant and his children had happy upbringings. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Cromwell has his famous painting done, which you can find easily on Google but I’ve included it here:

Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01

What impression do we get from the man in this image? Cold, regal, unemotive, perhaps. But Mantel’s fictional Cromwell doesn’t see himself like that – in fact, he is taken aback by the painting, as are his family and loved ones. I feel these quotes from two of the members of his household sum it up well:

‘”I don’t think you look like that,” Helen Barre says. “I see that your features are true enough. But that is not the expression on your face.”
Rafe says, “No, Helen, he saves it for men.”‘

I have to constantly remind myself that throughout the novel, this isn’t really Cromwell speaking, that this is just a fictional version – for all I know the painting might have been a faithful representation of his face and character – but it does make a fair point about how much emphasis we place on portraiture from certain periods when we have little else to go on. We make our own assumptions of character based on a person’s image, but we forget how staged the whole process is. Mantel details a little bit about the procedure: how Cromwell was asked to sit, what he should be holding, how he should place his hands, his clothes. For royalty, this is even more of an orchestrated process. How much about a person’s real personality can we glean from these images?

The other characters are similarly complex; you don’t get the sense that there is one wholly good or one wholly bad person in it. Henry VIII is particularly fascinating, portrayed as almost childlike and flaky with his own emotions and decisions – a familiar sight to historians, I’m sure, but it was far from the grand figure I expected him to be (based on, well, his portraiture). In other ways, he is exactly the kind of character you WOULD expect, what with the way he moved through wives and his own mood swings (though Mantel attributed those partly to the numerous health conditions he suffered with). Anne Boleyn is also an interesting character, portrayed as fairly cunning and unsympathetic but, by the end and particularly when her long-awaited son turns out to be a daughter, as much a victim of the oppressive monarchy as Henry is. Keep track of the characters if you can, as Mantel’s style means 9 times out of 10 when you see the word ‘he’, the pronoun is referring to Cromwell – even if it follows on directly from the mention of another male character. It takes a little getting used to but it’s another individual facet to Mantel’s style that makes it so enjoyable, and increases the overall suspicion that Cromwell is actually narrating the story, referring to himself in third person.

This was a few years post-Wolf Hall (closer to Bring Up the Bodies, I think) but it seems prudent to highlight that Mantel herself was villainised to the general public when she wrote a perceptive essay about Kate Middleton and her place in the modern monarchy. Kate is the nation’s darling, as beloved as Diana was, although seemingly having a much better time with the royal family than her would-be mother-in-law did. Mantel said that modern expectations of Kate only require her to exist and look pretty, making sure to keep any personality or quirk under the rug. This wasn’t an attack on Kate herself as it was an attack on the system and the media – it’s a fascinating essay, you can read it here – but the press turned on Mantel and even David Cameron said her comments were unjust. The problem is, I suppose, is that there’s an unspoken agreement to adore and never criticise or question our royal family. We assume from a few smiles and snatched whispers that Kate and William have simply the perfect relationship; that Kate is flawless, and that no doubt Prince George will grow up and fit right into the cookie-cutter mould he needs to be the future monarch. Things are slowly moving on from the stiff, traditional monarchy – George is the first heir who would succeed to the throne regardless of whether he was born male or female, for example – but if you dare to imply that Kate is having to hide her personality from the media (which of COURSE she is, come on now) you’re the enemy. At any rate, I saw Mantel’s comments in a new light once I’d read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and observed the kind of measures the Boleyns would resort to in order to have access to the throne. Could that irresistible Tudor power be comparable to anything our modern royal family has? Definitely not. Although, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure I agree with Mantel entirely. She might have implied that Kate is as much a victim to her public image as Marie Antoinette was, but you can bet Antoinette didn’t have Hello magazine and the obsessive celebrity culture of the 21st century stalking her footsteps.

The Royal Shakespeare Company created two plays based on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies which I hear they often stage back-to-back – a hefty experience for all involved, but no doubt a fantastic one. I was desperate to snag tickets, but they were just too expensive, which is a real shame. My friend Misha’s mum saw the Wolf Hall play with a hardcore theatre buddy who came out remarking that it was a perfect play: perfectly cast, perfectly staged, perfectly acted, and so on. They’ve now taken the productions to Broadway. On the small screen, the BBC created a six-part TV adaptation of the two books, with the first episode airing on Wednesday night. It’s got a pretty amazing cast – Mark Rylance takes the lead as Thomas Cromwell, with Damian Lewis as Henry VIII (yes!), Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey. I suspect they’ll carry it on once The Mirror and the Light is published, but we’ll have to wait and see. Spoilers below.

wolf hall 1

Like the early pages of the book, I thought the first episode of Wolf Hall was particularly confusing – I have no idea how those who hadn’t read the book were able to keep track of the plot and immense cast of characters, or even appreciate the finer touches in the script. For example: there’s a scene where Cromwell looks over his dead wife Liz and is told she spoke on her deathbed about a time she held a snake in Italy. As Cromwell is told about this, his eyes widen, as readers will know that that was his own anecdote to tell, not Liz’s – but beyond that brief flicker on his face, it is never mentioned again. Generally speaking, the critics adored it, with some calling it ‘close to perfect television’, and Mantel herself, who wasn’t involved in the drama (unlike the RSC play, which she oversaw), supposedly gave it the thumbs up. Good enough for me!

So, Goodreads! Five stars. I won’t say this was the best book I read in 2014 because I remember The Luminaries only too fondly, but it’s in the top three. Now to sink my teeth into Bring Up the Bodies

[Coming next: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel]

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The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries

The Luminaries is probably the most recently-published book I’ve read so far (2013) and it really came into my consciousness when it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – arguably THE most important literary award in the UK, Commonwealth, and Ireland. If a book’s shortlisted for that, you know it’s going to be a good’un. Catton was hotly-tipped to win by the bookies, and her win would break two Booker records: at 832 pages, it would be the longest novel to ever scoop the prize, and at 28, Catton would be the youngest ever winner. Given the furore surrounding the novel, it was unsurprising, then, that the vast Luminaries emerged from the impressive and diverse shortlist as the winner.

With that in mind, The Luminaries was at the top of my Christmas list – and Tez (my dear dad) didn’t disappoint. I began reading the book on Christmas day and was hooked from the start, finishing it in early January. Despite my initial reservations, it ended up being one of the best books I’ve read in years – and I can’t help but compare every book I’ve read since to its elegant prose and storytelling. I’ll mention now that this review doesn’t contain any spoilers (the plot is so tightly woven it would take me a while to give you any), so read on if you fancy giving it a go.

The Luminaries, set amidst the gold rush of New Zealand in the 1860s, opens with a Scottish man accidentally interrupting a private meeting of twelve different men in the lounge room of a hotel. The men have gathered to discuss three suspicious events that took place two weeks ago; a drunk hermit was found dead in his home, a prostitute tried to take her life, and a wealthy man completely vanished. As the meeting (and the novel) progresses, we learn about each of the twelve men and what story they have that connects them together in the mystery, ultimately revealing important information that explains what happened on that fateful night.

A twist to the entire premise is that Catton, a budding astrologer, charted the positions of the stars and constellations on these particular dates and wraps the story around what was happening in the sky. Certain characters represent certain star signs and others represent planets, so when a certain planet moved into a star sign, the two associating characters have some significant relationship or development with one another. At the beginning of the novel we are given a character chart and each section of the book is preluded with a map of the positions, detailing which planets were in which star signs at the time. I initially didn’t follow this too closely as I’m fairly clueless about astrology, and not knowing doesn’t affect the storyline at all, but I think if I was to go back and reread I’d love to pay closer attention to that structural decision.

Catton mimics a Victorian writing style throughout the novel, which initially felt a bit pretentious and difficult to read, but I soon fell in love with it. She has said in interviews that one thing she’s fed up of discussing is her age and her gender, but when you read the novel you can’t help but feel where the critics’ surprise is coming from – it just doesn’t seem like it was written like a 28-year-old woman. It might be the Victorian style she adopted, but something about the prose and the characters feels as if the omniscient narrator and author of the novel is an older man. I should mention that I don’t mean that in the stereotypical sense (e.g. women write about kittens and fairies while men write about serious topics – as a young, female, feminist writer, that couldn’t be further from the truth) but I did study the subtle, fine details between men and women’s writing during my degree and some books do feel more male-written or female-written than others, for reasons I can never put my thumb on.

I suppose I do have a small issue with how the women were portrayed in the novel, which might be influencing why I think it doesn’t feel like a woman wrote it. There are only two of them among a principal cast of around fifteen or so men, and both of them are fairly cliché – the victimised ‘whore’ who is beloved by almost everyone (I hesitate to use the term ‘Mary Sue’ but it gives you the idea), and the buxom, red-haired temptress who plots and brings men to their knees. I don’t know if this was a purposeful decision styled in the vein of literature from the period or if it was done subconsciously, but both women feel under-developed in contrast to the other characters, and you get the sense that without their physical beauty they would be fairly unremarkable – something you can’t say for most of the men. But that’s really a minor point, compared to the overall effect of the novel, which is amazingly readable considering its length.

The Luminaries doesn’t have a film or television adaptation yet, but Catton has supposedly sold the rights to HBO so we’re bound to expect a series within the next few years. It’s well-suited to television due to its complex cast and each character having a different story to tell – I can see entire episodes focusing on one or two characters, the next episode focusing on another two, and so on, particularly as much of the novel takes place on the same day (and the dates are very significant). If it’s done well it should be a very entertaining show, though I’m not sure how they could prolong it out over more than one season. Catton said in an interview that when she was writing it, she had a cast of actors that she would refer to pictures of for inspiration (including James McAvoy, Richard E. Grant, and Mark Williams) so presumably that would be the dream cast. Even though the characters in the novel have different origins (Scottish, English, French, and Australian, to name a few) I noticed that she was mainly indicating British actors, and to be honest I’m not sure if New Zealand has a flourishing television industry, so I’ll be interested to see what the nationality and the accents of the cast are.

So, Goodreads review: another five stars from me. I promise I am actually a bit more discerning with a lot of the books I read, but most of the ones I’ve blogged about so far have been fantastic and fully deserving of the five stars. Thank the lord for good books!

[Coming next: Stoner by John Williams]

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