Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pick your prince

I'm between books right now as I've just finished Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall. Often, after I read a really marvelous book, I know that the next thing is likely to suffer by comparison, so I have to put a little time in between. I was first introduced to this novel (I believe before it was published in the States) by Levi Stahl, who wrote so wonderfully about it that he made me eager to read it too. Even so, since one man's fabulous is another man's "meh," I didn't necessarily expect to love it.

For connoisseur's of both literary fiction and history, and also for more mainstream readers, Wolf Hall is a thorough pleasure. It follows the years of Thomas Cromwell's rise to prominence from an apprentice, of sorts, to the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, just at the time that Henry VIII started to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn to the apex of his power in England before the king's relationship with his second queen began to sour.

Mantel sticks close to the facts, wielding her impressive scholarship in service to her imagination and creating a fully-realized portrait, not just of Cromwell, but also the other historical figures who seem to live and breathe on the page with their contradictions, murky motivations, and unpredictability. Conversations, formal in the royal court, or whispered behind closed doors, snap with wit and realism.

One of my favorite characterizations in the novel is what she does with Thomas Howard (Duke of Norfolk and uncle to Anne) -- a frequent Cromwell adversary who only grudgingly comes to acknowledge "the son of a blacksmith's" power at court:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old, but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an axe-head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics; in tiny jewled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyr's bones....He thinks the Bible a book unnecessary for laypeople, though he understands priests make some use of it. He thinks book-reading an affectation altogether, and wishes there were less of it at court. His niece is always reading, Anne Boleyn, which is perhaps why she is unmarried at the age of twenty-eight. He does not see why it's a gentleman's business to write letters; there are clerks for that.

Mantel excels at presenting these entertaining and densely-packed descriptions, conjuring the Duke before you, and every time afterward that he appears, you bear that first impression in mind. When he comes "rattling" into the room, you remember those shards of martyr's bones, the impression both faintly comic and sinister at once -- and you feel you have his measure.

Reading Wolf Hall you are immersed in the world of Tudor England, its chamber pots and jewel-crusted gowns, the barges on the Thames and the grisly public executions. But of course, the real genius in it all is the portrait of Cromwell that emerges; a man so crucial in working out the tangle of separating England from the Roman Church and Henry from his wife; the man who was simultaneously loathed at court and in politics, but loved by family and his extensive household of valued servants.

One feels a little silly, falling in love with Thomas Cromwell, long dead and described as looking "like a murderer," but as I was re-reading Levi Stahl's musings on the book, he actually hit the nail on the head as to the attraction -- for males or females; it is "hyper-competence," a subject that my husband and I have discussed in just this context.

As Mantel notes in the book, Cromwell was said to have memorized the entire New Testament in Latin; he was adept in several languages and could out-talk the Devil; he knew a quiet, sure way to kill a man, if necessary, and he knew how to convince people that his ideas were really theirs. He knew the value of things and when asked by the women at home to describe Anne for them, could "price her out" from head to foot; he knew what was in England's coffers to the last farthing; he could shoe a horse, plan a meal for a cardinal, threaten a troublemaker into submission, and make a pair of peacock wings for his little daughter. He's not writing sonnets, swashbuckling, or laying wenches left and right, he's just tackling the everyday, alongside of parleying with kings and bishops. He's rather exhausting, and that seems to have been a common opinion of him.

The title of this post, "pick your prince," is a bit of the pragamatic wisdom of Cromwell, by way of Mantel's storytelling. There may be a number of contentious princes; you don't know which one will end up triumphing, who to suck up to; but if you're a smart and capable man, you'll pick your prince and make darn sure that he's the one who comes out on top -- and if it doesn't work out, you take the consequences. Taking risks and responsibility at the same time are sorely lacking in public life these days -- maybe that's a big part of the attraction as well.

This is quite long and I've still managed to leave out a lot of what's wonderful about this book. When I got toward the end and realized that Wolf Hall is the seat of the Seymours (family of another future wife for Henry) the foreshadowing gave me an inkling that this might not be the only novel Mantel intends to write about Cromwell. Very happily, she is, at least according to the Internet (ultimate trustworthiness), already at work on the next volume.

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