Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Cromwell’

I was hugely looking forward to this novel – although at 100 pages, novelette may be a more apt title – which failed to win the Man Booker prize last night.

It is the story of Mary. That Mary. Mother of Jesus, Bearer of God, Theotokos, the Madonna.

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Of all figures to try to give a voice to, Mary must rank as one of the most challenging. Do you present her as an innocent and unknowing vessel of God? An active member of the church of her son? A saintly and divine figure? Otherworldly? A political activist? A mother?

How do you reconcile the myriad beliefs, doctrines and images of her? How do you give a voice to the voiceless perpetual virgin? Tóibín has done almost the direct opposite of Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall: Thomas Cromwell was a shadowy figure about whom little was and is known; Mary is and has been for centuries on the limelight.

And how do you avoid your reader having that Monty Python Life of Brian quotation in the back of their head? You know the one.

“He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!”

The story that Tóibín creates focuses on Mary at the end of her life, almost in hiding. Men come to visit her for her story – presumably apostles – and she distrusts them too much to tell her story. Instead she tells it in monologue to us so that the truth be told at least once.

As a monologue, the story succeeds or fails on the strength of her voice and it is a convincing and human voice. For me, personally, it didn’t quite hit the mark, however.

Tóibín’s prose is beautiful and rhythmic but I felt perhaps a little bit overly so. I didn’t feel the rawness of the pain that I imagined Mary would feel to recall how her son was taken from her. I didn’t feel her worry, her fear, her horror.

Tóibín created distance between the narrative and the events narrated, and it is clearly a recollection than a re-living – it’s not, after all, as if anyone needs a spoiler alert for it – which perhaps accounts for the reduced rawness. But it left me wanting something… more.

The best parts to the novel? I’d say Lazarus. Really interesting and reminiscent of the Duffy poem Mrs Lazarus. It seemed that Lazarus didn’t really benefit by being returned from the dead: he was sickly and weak and distant, shunned by society. The impression given of Christ by this act was ambiguous: part arrogance, partially suspected confidence trick, partly to assuage his own guilt at not healing him earlier.

I also liked her protectiveness over Joseph’s chair.

It is such a difficult task Tóibín set himself. Mary does have a cynicism which almost leads to her trying to debunk or at least question her son’s miracles, but at the same time, she recognises the power in him. So immensely difficult!

I have to say I don’t feel he succeeded fully but it is still a very thoughtful and poetic and beautifully poignant book.

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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 … 😉