Posts Tagged ‘Henry VIII’

I do love a book with a map in its cover!

2015/01/img_6591.jpg I must confess I’m not entirely sure what this map adds to the book, but at a personal level, I used to live pretty much where Shardlake’s house is! Inside Lincoln’s Inn. Abutting Chancery Lane.

And that, pretty much, sums up the appeal of the Shardlake series, of which this is the sixth. They are familiar and comfortable. The Tudor era is familiar. The legal world of the Inns of Court are familiar. The recurring characters of Guy and Barak are familiar.

And there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

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I have missed the two preceding novels, Revelation and Heartstone, but there’s nothing here that depends on a prior knowledge of those – or any previous Shardlake stories.

There are three interrelated plots within the novel: an ongoing bitter legal case which generates new friends and new enemies for Shardlake; an instruction from the Queen, Catherine Parr, to Shardlake to investigate the disappearance of a dangerous book; and domestic tensions within his own household. These plots alternate and weave together more successfully than I’d felt previous Shardlake novels had done. The conclusion twists deliciously and harrowingly for its protagonists – and the reader. And a continuation to the next book established in the epilogue. Shardlake is a cash cow that Sansom clearly intends to continue milking!

And why not?!

The book is very much a transitioning work: it marks a somewhat brutal retirement of Barak and Tamasin; the introduction of a new assistant, pupil barrister Nicholas; a complete gutting of Shardlake’s own household; and, of course, the anticipation of the death of one King and succession of another. I’ll miss Barak, who I hope may make guest appearances in the future, and particularly the somewhat fiery Tamasin, although Nicholas has promise as a character.

So, beyond the comfort and familiarity, what does the book offer? An effective enough depiction of the final months of Henry VIII’s reign as a time of religious and political turmoil. There are a few slightly clumsy expositions of Anabaptists and Lollards – the benefit of Nicholas’ role: the worldly Barak wouldn’t have needed the history lessons! Plot points were repeated slightly too frequently for my liking: Shardlake sometimes ruminated on the plot to himself, reported to the palace and then discussed the case with Barak later. I would like Sansom to have a little more faith in my ability to keep up. Similarly, the machinations of the Court politics and the ruse and fall of traditionalist or reforming sympathisers was expounded too much. And if another person commented that Secretary Paget followed the King and did not seek to lead him, having learned from the mistakes of Wolsey and Cromwell one more time, I might have … tweeted angrily!

Perhaps I have been spoiled though. After Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, almost every depiction of Tudor London will seem … Well, monochrome.

I’d also have liked the trail to have been a little less obvious. Shardlake – to me – needs to be piercing in his intellect and perspicacity. Here, his investigations were a little ‘plodding’: only four people had access to the Queen’s room when her book was taken, so he interviewed them and followed the leads. A murder had been committed and the neighbour had disturbed the murderers, so he interviewed them and followed the leads. I did wonder once or twice what Shardlake offered the investigation which others couldn’t provide beyond what we might nowadays call plausible deniability for the Queen.

I was also rather more interested in the legal case of the Slanning painting than Sansom seemed to be. For me – abd I fully accept it is possibly just because of my legal background – I’d have liked that explored further. The darkness eventually revealed, again, seemed a little convenient.

What Sansom has produced and offered is a well plotted, well paced, tense political thriller with a likeable cast. The tour-de-force moment, however, is the brooding, terrifying and corrupted presence of the king which presides over the novel.

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There are days, those dark days, when you sit down and realise that you’ve had the same meal for three days …

I’ve just sat down and realised that the last three books I’ve read are all historical fiction.

Bring Up The Bodies by Mantel, Pure by Andrew Miller and now Sovereign by C. J. Sansom.

Sovereign is the third of the Matthew Shardlake novels and certainly stronger than its predecessor Dark Fire. Dark Fire revolved around the – frankly preposterous – notion of a vastly powerful flammable chemical being unearthed by Henry VIII’s agents. Here, the plot is more human and credible.

Well, “plot” isn’t quite right: plots, plural. There is the original plot device of Shardlake being dispatched to York to meet up with the King’s Northern Progress in order to hear legal cases; and, almost incidentally, to ensure that a captured traitor, Sir Edward Broderick, remains alive until he can be transported to London to be tortured. The moral dilemma of ensuring a man remains alive solely to face torture and execution are raised through the book but not exactly delved into.

Once placed in York, Shardlake is in the vicinity when a glazer is killed. A box of suspicious papers are found in the dead man’s house. The papers are glimpsed by Shardlake before he is knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant who flees with the papers.

In the words of Lemony Snicket, a series of unfortunate and deadly and – increasingly bizarre – incidents befall Shardlake as he becomes the victim of repeated assassination attempts. These may or may not be connected with the papers in the box.

Meanwhile Jack Barak – the Watson to Shardlake’s Holmes – starts a dalliance with a girl in the Queen’s employ; Shardlake befriends a local Yorkist lawyer; the Queen becomes embroiled with gossip; plots multiply and intertwine and writhe around each other. And at the heart of the novel is the King, the Sovereign of the title, the focus of the rebellion.

It is the massive mouldering image of the king that dominates the novel’s imagination despite the scarcity of pages devoted to him. We only see him once as the Progress reaches York’s Council at Fulford Cross. And even then we see only fragments due to Shardlake’s grovelling before him. We hear his voice humiliating the lawyer, we see his height and bulk; we smell the rot of his ulcerating rotting fetid noisome sore on his leg. The image of him rutting upon the child-like Queen Catherine is mentioned more than once. The stench of the King’s injury is recalled when trying to identify a poison later.

And the prophecy of the downfall of Henry VIII describes him as the Mouldwarp.

What has always concerned me with historical fiction is still here. I like my history to be accurate: I am nervous about looking an arse by trotting out some fiction as historical fact at a quiz someday!! And I like my fiction to be real – to give the sense of a real place and real characters living and loving and breathing through it. With the exception of Henry’s leg, I didn’t feel the reality of the world despite the small details mentioned such as Shardlake’s steel mirror and the rather laboured use of the word “shit”.

I did, however, feel quite a shock on the plot twist when Shardlake returned to London and I was quite surprised by how concerned I felt for him.

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What a fabulous book!

It is rare that I anticipate a book as eagerly as this one; rare that a sequel can live up to the expectations of the first book; rare that historical fiction can grip me quite so intently! But Mantel manages all this in Bring Up The Bodies which, in my opinion, outshines the original Wolf Hall.

The original book had charted the rise of Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn and the fall from grace of Cardinal Wolsey. This book, in which Cromwell is at the height of his powers, charts the fall, trial and execution of Anne Boleyn and her replacement by Jane Seymour.

Is that a spoiler? It’s historical, there was never any doubt about the outcome. If so, what’s the point of reading it? The ending is mapped out by my (somewhat cloudy) GCSE History; the plot twists and turns that, say, C. P. Sansom relies on cannot appear here. The delight is in the people, the life, the humanity that Mantel’s language brings to what had been just names before! She invites us into a new and vibrant world populated by some of the most complete people that I have ever met in fiction.

In fact, Mantel’s language explicitly does invite us in: the present tense, the occasional first person plural pronoun that places her world before “us” as “we” explore it. By instinct, these overly writerly techniques to bridge the 500 years gap between us and the Tudors would usually irk me. But here they work exceptionally well.

Let us consider the title: “Bring up the bodies” is the cry to bring the prisoners out of the Tower to face their trial. But Cromwell is also haunted – so so haunted – by ghosts that it is almost tearjerking. The opening image is of him hawking with hawks named for his dead children. We are told that “when the house is quiet… then dead people walk about” in Austin Friars; the Christmas costume that he had made ten year previously for his daughter reminds him “Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather’s breath from you”; following an argument with Henry, he recalls advice his father gave him and “is glad his father is with him”; the final image in the book is of a page turned over and displaying the remnants of “the cardinal’s writing… so he can see the dead hand that inscribed them”. In fact, despite being dead, Wolsey’s presence is so frequent and integral to Cromwell he deserves to be cited in the dramatis personae at the start of the book.

This is a book resonant with imagery that is redolent with symbolism but also rooted in the world if the book. The hawks circling their prey in the opening pages parallels Anne’s waiting women circling and betraying her; the proverb book given by Henry to Jane and still bearing the jewel encrusted “A” for Anne and the marks of the “K” beneath it like a palimpsest is hugely and wonderfully evocative of the effect on our lives of all our past encounters.

And finally onto the big question: how is Cromwell himself portrayed? Enigmatic and shadowy in history, “sleek, plump and densely inaccessible” as Mantel describes him. Here, he is perhaps less sympathetically portrayed than in Wolf Hall. He is certainly utterly imposing: the moment when he is beside the injured King and

seems to body out and fill all the space around the fallen man. He sees himself, as if he were watching from the canvas above: his girth expands, even his height. So that he occupies even more ground. So that he takes up more space, breathes more air, is planted and solid when Norfolk careers into him, twitching, trembling. So he is a fortress on a rock, serene, and Thomas Howard just bounces back from his walls, wincing, flinching and blethering.

This is almost a Gandalf The Grey moment facing the Balrog!

And his conduct of the interviews with Anne’s women and then her four alleged suitors and her brother is utterly chilling. He shows an utter lack of compulsion or interest in whether the five men were guilty as charged. As he tells us: he was charged to find guilty men; and the men he found were guilty of something. When Gregory asks “Were they guilty?” he meant had they slept with Anne; Cromwell heard the question asking if the court had found then guilty.

Nor is he trustworthy: as he said to Thomas Wyatt, he cannot split himself into two men, one his friend and the other the King’s man. Nothing can be said to him in confidence that it will not be used against you later.

Yet he is still wholly compelling! His utter self assurance is refreshing; his splashes of humanity and disregard for others who mock Anne even as the preparations for her execution are made; his concern for his son; and, above all his loneliness and his ghosts all humanise him.

Utterly outstanding!

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Ooooo the adorable and lovely Mrs P has just returned from Exeter with my pre-ordered copy of Bring Up The Bodies.

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As a big chunky two inch thick book, released in the midst of a busy time at work, it may take a while to be able to give a full review so I thought I’d do a quick mini-review of the opening pages. A ‘taster’ if you like; or an amuse-bouche.

So Bones is a sequel to the sublime (and that’s coming from someone whose not a fan of historical fiction generally) Wolf Hall which ended with Thomas Cromwell moving into the role of Henry VIII’s chief minister, Wolsey has died, Thomas More executed, Anne Boleyn Queen.

The opening pages of Bodies picks up with Cromwell and Henry VIII (with assorted courtiers including the winning Rafe Sadler) hunting together. The first sentence is chillingly bizarre: “His children are falling from the skies”. Recalling the tender, terrible moments in Wolf Hall when Cromwell’s wife and children succumb to the plague, it is almost enough to bring a tear to the eye immediately.

Mantel in just these pages hurls us once again headlong into the Tudor world. The present tense (which usually grates with me but here I relish) thrusts us into the “gore-streaked … riot of dismemberment” that is Henry’s hunting season.

Knowing my GCSE history, as I tentatively, vaguely, tenuously do (reinforced by Phillipa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl), I don’t think it’s a spoiler to note that Boleyn is executed in due course. This opening gore soaked hunting scene anticipates the inevitable fall of Anne and reinforces the blood stained history of the period. This is no chivalric romance.

There is a wonderful, lyrical quality to Mantel’s language here. The hawks (named after Cromwell’s dead children and hence explaining that enigmatic first line) fly above and bear witness to a “flittering, flinching universe”; Henry’s summer consists to the “beating off and the whipping in of hounds”.

We don’t see much of Cromwell himself here: he seems almost eclipsed by Henry’s presence. As Mantel writes, Cromwell “will defer” to the King’s or the Seymours’ stories at supper so that his work can begin as night falls. What we do see of him, however, sets him out as distinct and different from the others. Unlike the King, unlike Rafe, Cromwell does not burn in the summer sun but remains “as white as God made him” with “the skin of a lily”. This suggests again perhaps a grave-marked quality to him, possibly almost a vampiric presence: communing with his dead daughters, deathly pale, working through the night.

Overall a great opening. Not as strong as Wolf Hall‘s which erupts before us with a scene depicting the young Cromwell being beaten half to death by his father Walter in a coruscating tour-de-force!

Poor Mrs P may have to put up with an engrossed husband this weekend…. But then I also know what else she bought … 😉