Tag Archives: Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate 2020)

Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed. biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age.

(Page 65)

This is the third novel in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy: my blog posts of the first two are here and here. When the first novel was published in 2009, the idea of Donald Trump as President of the USA was a barely-remembered joke from Back to the Future II (1989). Yet now that we’ve reached the third volume her portrait of Henry VIII as a flashy, erratic, concupiscent, self-serving despot has taken on sharp contemporary relevance. Henry had more wives than Donald. and treated them a lot worse, but on the other hand he believed in God and his sense of his own importance, for good or ill, was bound up with that belief.

How we could wish for a principled, pragmatic and effective Thomas Cromwell in the White House of our own crooked age!

Somewhere – or Nowhere, perhaps – there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name.

(Page 435)

Ten years ago I thought of Thomas More as a saint, a model of integrity and courage, and Cromwell as corrupt, venal and murderous wielder of power. Now I think of the former as a vicious, misogynistic ideologue, and Cromwell as a basically decent man who, though not above murderous vengefulness, wasn’t afraid to get shit on his shoes or dirt on his hands in order to preserve social order and peace.

What to say about this huge (882 pages) book?

It’s beautifully written: someone told me his partner was reading a couple of pages of it to him each night, and I can see what a joy that would be.

It’s meticulously researched: it’s five decades since I studied Reformation History, so I’m no judge on its accuracy, but every time I checked a detail it turned out to be there in the record.

It’s spellbinding: even though you know in advance – or could do – that the main character is executed at the order of the king he serves and whose favour he enjoys, that conclusion seems both impossible and inevitable as events move inexorably towards it.

Though the resonances with Donald Trump’s presidency are strong, the book isn’t a thinly- or even thickly-veiled analogy for our times. One feels at every moment that Hilary Mantel has steeped her imagination in the England of the late 1530s. The food, the clothes, the specifics of patriarchy, the religious complexities, the lurking presence of the plague: all come startlingly alive. The bewildering array of characters that my generation of Australians learnt about in school – Henry VIII and his six wives, Thomas More, Cromwell himself, the bishops Cranmer, Pole and Latimer – are here as scheming and schemed against, sweet-talking, threatening, manoeuvring and grasping for survival, and in the middle of it all somewhere grappling with matters of principle.

I learned about the English Reformation from a Catholic perspective, and my childhood contempt for a clergy who modified their doctrines to suit the whims of a lusty king wasn’t changed much by my university studies. But this book, while it leaves me with even less respect for Henry, has given me a profound respect and admiration for the champions of the gospel around him.

In one reading, patriarchy remains intact and unchallenged in this book. There is no hint that both of Henry’s daughters would one day rule England – though women, including Mary, cold cause terrible trouble by marrying against the king’s wishes. Women are seen largely as pawns in the dangerous game of royal succession: will this one please the ageing king enough for him to ‘do the deed’, will she get pregnant, will the child be a boy, will the boy survive childhood? But there are hints that elsewhere women can have different kinds of power. Some women inspire the heretics and papists who rise up against Henry. Thomas’s witnessing a Lollard woman burned at the stake is one of the formative horrors of his childhood. And in the short chapter in which Jane Seymour gives birth to a son the narration moves away from Thomas’s point of view, and we are taken for a moment into a whole different world. Here not only do women have significant agency, but also the lore and wisdom inextricably bound up with the old Catholic religion comes into its own. Our sympathies are thoroughly with Cromwell the protestant, but Mantel’s imagination transcends anything like one-sided advocacy. A short quotation may help show what I mean:

When Mary gave birth to her Saviour and ours, did she suffer as other mothers do? The divines have sundry opinions, but women think she did. They think she shared their queasy, trembling hours, even though she was a virgin when she conceived, a virgin when she carried: even a virgin when redemption burst out of her, in an unholy gush of fluids. Afterwards, Mary was sealed up again, caulked tight against man’s incursions. And yet she became the fountain from which the whole world drinks. She protects against plague, and teaches the hard-hearted how to feel, the dry-eyed to drop a tear. She pities the sailor tossed on the salt wave, and saves even thieves and fornicators from punishment. She comes to us when we have only an hour to live, to warn us to say our prayers.
But all over England virgins are crumbling. Our Lady of Ipswich must go down. Our Lady of Walsingham, which we call Falsingham, must be taken away in a cart. Our Lady of Worcester is stripped of her coat and her silver shoes. The vessels containing her breast-milk are smashed, and found to contain chalk. And where her eyes move, and weep tears of blood, we know now that the blood is animal blood and her eyes are worked on wires.

From behind the papist virgin with her silver shoes there creeps another woman, poor, her feet bare and calloused, her swarthy face plastered with the dust of the road. Her belly is heavy with salvation and the weight drags and makes her back ache. When night comes she draws warmth not from ermine or sable but from the hide and hair of farm animals, as she squats among them in the straw; she suffers the first pangs of labour on a night of cutting cold, under a sky pierced by white stars.

(page 508, 510)

I finished this book with a sense of having witnessed a miracle.

Oh one last thing: earlier in the trilogy, Hilary Mantel got stuck into Thomas More and made Robert Bolt’s Man for all Seasons into a villain for our times, in this book Thomas Becket, the martyr hero of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral gets a similarly persuasive demotion. Is nothing sacred? I cry. To which Hilary Mantel apparently responds in the negative.

End of year lists 2012

As if it isn’t enough to be shopping and wrapping and cooking and unwrapping and eating and searching for lost dogs and blocking our ears to keep out the piped carols, it’s the season for drawing up Best-Of lists.

The Art Student’s best five movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi 2011): ‘Definitely the best movie this year. We got to see how complex it all is for secular Muslims in Iran.’

Lore (Cate Shortland 2012): ‘Up there with A Separation. You don’t believe you can watch yet another film about Jews and Nazis, yet here it was, original and fresh. I hope it wins an Oscar. I liked Somersault too.’

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar 2011): ‘Creepy,’ she said, ‘but good.’

This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino 2011): ‘I loved the great humour, the art, the spectacular musical event.”

The Sessions (Ben Lewin 2012): ‘I liked having nudity and sex without it being voyeuristic.’

My best five movies, chosen fairly arbitrarily (with arbitrary reason given) from a short list of 19 that included all five of the Art Student’s picks:

Liberal Arts (Josh Radnor 2012) features a main character who walks around the city reading. I identified. It also reminded me of the pleasures of Eric Rohmer movies.

Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle (Lian Lunson 2012) pips The Sapphires (Wayne Blair 2012) at the post for my musical of the year. It’s a concert movie that invites us into extraordinary intimacy with a brilliantly musical family. Martha Wainwright sings ‘First Born’, which her mother wrote for her brother, and which we played a lot when our firstborn son was being ‘the first to crawl’.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki 2011) made me feel irrationally pleased with myself or recognizing the oddly deadpan directorial style from Drifting Clouds, which I saw and loved decades ago.

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius 2011) was a moderately enjoyable film until the final moment, which resolved a plot point I had been half-awarely worrying over, and vastly expanded the movie’s meaning.

Weekend (Andrew Haigh 2011): In spite of the phenomenal consumption of alcohol and other drugs, which would normally be enough to put me right off, I loved the unsentimental, unprurient portrayal of two characters who are completely taken with each other, including sexually.

The worst movie: We both picked Sophie Lellouche’s bland, self-indulgent Paris–Manhattan. But don’t take this as a solid judgement on the film as it might have miraculously picked up after the first hour, which is all we could bear. If we had to name a movie we stayed the course for, the Art Student would pick Skyfall, which she just plain hated, and I might have to pick Bernie, because Jack Black’s creepiness and the creepiness of the subject matter were from different universes.

The Art Student’s best books (she wouldn’t be limited to five), listed here in no particular order, with links to my blog entries or the book’s LibraryThing page:

1bmMartin Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (2011): ‘Full of surprises and delights, about the way an artist sees the world.’

090787181XIrfan Orga, Portrait of a Turkish Family (©1950, Eland & Galeri Kayseri 2004): ‘Compellingly tells of the transition from a feudal society to modernity as a result of war. Also wonderful was the insider child’s view of life under the veil.’

20120704-175516.jpgHilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012): ‘I’m glad it won the Booker. I’m completely hooked on the story, and looking forward to the third book, although having fallen in love with Cromwell I’m not looking forward to his death.’

1920898581Heather Goodall, From Invasion to Embassy (1996): ‘A must-read for all Australians, especially those who think the dispossession of Aboriginal people all happened in the distant past.’

1ccStephen Gilchrist, editor, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art (2012): ‘I’m only half way through this but it’s a great, accessible introduction to the complexity of Australian Indigenous art.’

Edwina Shaw, Thrill Seekers (2012): ‘I read this in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down even though a lot was uncomfortable.’

0007149530Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008): ‘Fascinating portraits of scientists in the late 18th century, when science and romanticism were closely joined. Particularly good on Banks and the Herschels.’

0670033804Sebastian Barry, The Long Way Home (2005) and On Canaan’s Side (2011): ‘Two completely absorbing novels. The first is probably the best novel of the First World War I’ve read, and the second extends the story to Irish immigration to the USA, and the past catching up with you, written convincingly in the voice of an 80 year old woman.’

My best books, which I’ve kept down to just five by declaring the AS’s list off limits:

20120224-180529Fàbio Moon & Gabriel Bà, Daytripper (2011): A gem of a comic book by twin brothers from Brazil, this is a string of connected short stories that celebrates a human life as a miracle of survival.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (2008): A story of colonial India that manages to be a gripping romance at the same time as blasting any romantic nostalgia for the Raj to oblivion.

Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga, the Anangu Story (2009): it was a toss-up between this and Tohby Riddle’s miraculous Unforgotten for my picture book of the year. This is a different kind of miracle from Tohby’s – it opens a space for a multitude of voices to speak about the lethal indifference to Indigenous Australians on the part of he British atomic test at Maralinga, and about the resilience of the Anangu people.

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002): I choose this over Gibson’s brilliant 26 Views of the Starburst World, which was published this year, because the earlier book made me understand something of the colonisation of my North Queensland home that I had read about previously but managed not to grasp.

Jennifer Maiden, Liquid Nitrogen (2012): I read quite a bit of poetry this year. Possibly the major revelation was Byron’s Don Juan, but I haven’t finished reading that, and I might have chosen Liquid Nitrogen anyway, as I feel that Jennifer Maiden’s stories, meditations and dialogues help me to live in the modern world.

A note on the gender balance front: I would have thought my reading was fairly every spread between male and female writers, but numbers don’t cater to wishful thinking. According to my blog statistics, I read 34 books by men and 22 by women.

Hilary Mantel brings up the bodies

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate 2112)

20120704-175516.jpg I’m probably the only person of my generation whose grasp of what it was like to live in the courts of the Tudors comes mainly from an article written for The School Magazine by award winning children’s novelist and occasional commenter on this blog, Cassandra Golds. ‘The Princess in the Tower’ focused on Elizabeth, imprisoned during the reign of her half sister Mary, but there’s a memorable paragraph . It likens the court to a jungle where elegant people circled each other like wild beasts, seeking the advantage. Sadly, I’m writing this far from home, so can’t give you a quote. (Cassandra, if you read this, maybe you could add one in the comments section?) [Added later: Cassandra has commented with the passage which is even more apposite than I had remembered. Thanks, Cassandra.]

Even more than Wolf Hall, to which it’s a sequel, Bring up the Bodies validates that image in its portrayal of the court of Henry VIII. But at its heart there’s Thomas Cromwell, no wild beast but a methodical tactician, serving the king and good of the kingdom, receiving insults with apparent stolidity but forgetting nothing, keeping his own counsel, taming some beasts and destroying others.

I was reading this in a cafe in Goreme in Cappadocia, when an Australian woman (the cafe offered a decent flat white, much sought after by Australian coffee drinkers) called from several tables away.

Australian flat-white-drinking woman: ‘How are you finding that? I loved Wolf Hall but I found that one a bit hard to get into.’
Me: I’m loving it. I think it’s miraculous the way she gets right inside the minds of people from that time.
Australian flat-white-drinking woman’s grey-haired male companion: it’s all in the mind.
Me: Um, yes.
AFWDWGHMC: It’s past lives.
Me: Oh, you think Hilary Mantel was there in a past life.
AFWDWGHMC: Not just her, everybody.
Me: Well, that’s a conversation stopper if ever I heard one. (I didn’t say that, I just wish I had.)
AFWDWGH: She’s written another book, you know, a nonfiction book called Anne Boleyn, Witch.

So there you are. If anything was going to make me believe in past lives, it might well be this book. And if Hilary Mantel has written that nonfiction book, I wish she had spent the time on the next novel about Cromwell. It’s not that I want to see him get his comeuppance, as of course he will. I just want more of him. And I worry about his sweet, naive son Gregory.

PS: I read this in Turkey, among relics of rulers at least as much at the mercy of their whims as Henry Tudor. I wonder how English history might have gone if Henry could have had a harem. Surely if he had four wives at a time the need to have a son might have been less desperate. Mostly I didn’t take the book on outings, preferring to take thinner volumes. But here I am, reading it in the queue to see the treasures in Topkapi Palace.

20120715-133643.jpg

SWF 2012: The Weekend

First, a photo from Friday night. This is Tamar Chnorhokian, who read first in Moving People. That’s not a sponsor’s logo in the background, the story was set in a supermarket. You can see what I mean about the performers having nowhere to hide.

And now a sprint through my crowded weekend. My only serious queuing experience of the Festival was for the 11.30 session of What Would Edith Do? on Saturday – I got there before the previous session finished and so was comfortably towards the front of the queue. Edith Campbell Berry, the main character in Frank Moorhouse’s Dark PalaceGrand Days and Cold Light, may not have seized my imagination, perhaps because I haven’t read the first two books, but she has clearly been important to many people. I went to this hoping to find out what I’ve been missing and I got what I was after. Emily Maguire, novelist, discovered Edith in her late teenage years as a model of how it might be possible to live – rising to challenges and living nervously out of one’s depth rather than settling for the life mapped out by social expectations. She said there had been a number of times when she had actually asked herself the WWED question. Sadly, she deemed only one of them suitable for public exposure, but as it involved being invited to speak at a function in North Vietnam when she actually had no idea of the purpose of the function or who the Party functionaries thought she was, it was a perfectly satisfactory anecdote. The other panellists, journalists Annabel Crabb and Cynthia Banham, had come to the character later in life, but managed to convey the appeal. I realised that Cold Light is all aftermath: a woman who has lived daringly and intelligently, challenged convention in her private life and made a contribution on the world stage, returns to Australia in the 1950s where there is no place for such a woman and lives on scraps for the rest of her life. For those who have seen Edith riding around Geneva in a cowgirl suit or (is this really what they said?) stroking Anthony Eden’s head in her lap, the third trilogy is heartbreaking. Frank Moorhouse wasn’t there, but the best line of the session was his. He had told Annabel Crabb that one of the advantages of having spent 20 years with a single character was that she can now do her own PR and he doesn’t even have to turn up.

National Treasures was another poetry session that wasn’t quite what I had read the advertising to mean. I thought the participants – Mark Tredinnick, Vivian Smith and Judith Beveridge – were going to talk about Australian poetry they treasured, and read some to us, plus some of their own. What we got was excellent, but it wasn’t that: Judith Beveridge stayed firmly in the chair role, and the others talked of their own writing careers, and read from their work. When he was 15,  in the 1940s, Vivian S had sent off poems to The Bulletin, then pretty much the only place that published poetry in Australia. He received encouraging responses from the literary editor, Douglas Stewart, advising him to ditch the archaic poeticisms and recommending that he read contemporary poets such as T S Eliot. Decades later, Mark T was similarly advised by critic Jim Tulip, but the poets he recommended were William Carlos Williams, Robert Gray and Vivian Smith.

Tasmanian Aborigines was next, in which Lyndall Ryan talked to Ann Curthoys about her new book, a rewrite of her 1981 book on the same subject. Inevitably, the session involved a revisiting of the so-called History Wars: Keith Windschuttle had singled Professor Ryan’s 1981 book out for his accusation that lefty historians had fabricated evidence of massacre and his claim that in fact the original inhabitants of this country had just faded away when the Europeans arrived, possibly because of their inherent weaknesses. Windschuttle has been thoroughly discredited as a historian, of course, but it was interesting to hear Ryan’s take on the episode now. Asked what difference his intervention had made to our general understanding of Australian history, she said that paradoxically he had driven her and other back to interrogate their sources more thoroughly, and where in her first book she had focused on Aboriginal resistance, she had now looked at ‘settler activism’ and found that the evidence indicates that the violence of the frontier was much worse than historians had previously understood. Massacre, for instance, looms much larger in the new book than it did in the original.

Anne Curthoys was warm and personal as her interlocutor. She opened with a wonderful quote to the effect that in order to write history, one needs to have a deep commitment to the subject that relates to some great love or business in the present, and asked Lyndall Ryan what this love or business was in her case. But Professor Ryan was not to be seduced away from her calm, scholarly demeanour, and answered in terms of the breakthroughs in research since 1981. The question in my mind, which I didn’t get to ask, was along the same lines: as a white Australian, uncovering the evidence of terrible things done by your own forebears, how do you keep your composure, or if (as I think would be desirable) you lose your composure how do you keep your scholarly integrity? I guess I’ll just leave that one hanging.

Then I was back to the sun-filled Bangarra Mezzanine for Poetry Australia with Robert Gray, Rhyll McMaster, Tricia Dearborn, Geoffrey Lehmann – and the unfulfilled promise of Robert Adamson. It was a dazzling session – the sun was low over the Harbour and from where I was sitting it was impossible to look directly at whoever was at the lectern. Speaking less literally, it was okay. Each of the four poets read from their own work – some startling eroticism from Tricia Dearborn (I mean that in a good way), two poems from Rhyll McMaster that had me reaching for my pen to write down brilliant lines I knew I’d forget, in a scribble I now can’t read – her new book, Late Night Shopping, is now on my To Buy list. Geoffrey Lehmann read ‘Parenthood’, which begins ‘I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation /  Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small / Warm urine splatter on the asphalt’, and lives up to the promise of it opening. Almost as if in direct reference to Ali Alizadeh’s scathing Overland review of the Lehmann–Gray anthology, Robert Gray read a number of John Shaw Neilson’s limericks.
In the short Q&A, someone did tactfully name the elephant in the room. A bookseller from Perth, she said that the anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 was selling brilliantly. But, she said, she didn’t understand how a fine poet such as Fay Zwicky hadn’t made the cut. Ali Alizadeh, John Tranter, Peter Minter and other fierce critics of the anthology might have asked the same question but added a hundred names and whole classes of poetry, and gone on to challenge the inclusion of limericks. Here it was a genuine question rather than an attack. It seems to me that what was missing in the selection process was the intervention of someone who knew the field  and could veto the editors’ eccentricities. I can see why it would be hard to resist modifying the general perception of John Shaw Neilson by including a swag of limericks, or to include 14 poems by ‘Bellerive’, whose poems never even made it to the literary pages of the Bulletin of his time. But that’s when an authority figure needs to step in and rap someone over the knuckles.

Oh my paws and whiskers, across the road again to see Hilary Mantel on a huge screen in the Sydney Theatre talking about Bring Up the Bodies. What can I say? She was magnificent, and I’ve now got the book on my iPad. A friend of mine couldn’t read Wolf Hall, because he couldn’t tell who was being talked about a lot of the time – the book would say ‘he’ and expect you to know it was Thomas Cromwell. Evidently a lot of people had the same difficulty, because this new book says ‘he (Cromwell)’. As Michael Cathcart, interviewing Ms Mantell from our stage, said, you can almost hear the author saying, ‘Is that clear enough for you?’

[Added on Wednesday: The Literary Dilettante has an excellent account of this conversation here.]

Gluttons for punishment, we rushed from the theatre and drove to Marrickville for an evening of youthful cabaret/burlesque, which might have been on a different planet, but that’s another story altogether.

On Sunday, I only managed one event, The Oskar Schindler of Asia? in which Robin de Crespigny (pronounced Crepny) and former people-smuggler Ali al Jenabi conversed with ABC’s Heather Ewart (who is much smaller in person than she seems on the TV screen). This was 2012’s equivalent of last year’s conversation with David Hicks. Like Hicks, Ali al Jenabi is being treated unjustly by the Australian government. Although the title of the session is a quote from the judge who tried him for the crime of people smuggling, the government is so committed to the demonising term ‘people smuggler’ or at least so terrified of being attacked by the snarling Tony Abbott  if they are seen to be soft on such people, that al Jenabi, who seems to be a perfectly decent man who has endured terrible things, remains on a bridging visa pending deportation, even while all his family are now Australian residents.

It was a great Festival. Now I have to get back to work.

Cromwell & Tucker

In this video Alastair Campbell, former mover and shaker in the British government, talks to fabulous film critic Mark Kermode about the In the Loop character said to be based on him.

I don’t know about you, but I was both amused and chastened.

Here’s a thought. Could it be that Malcolm Tucker in In the Loop and Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall are really the same character seen through different lenses?

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (4th Estate 2009)

This is a truly engrossing historical novel – I hope it wins the Booker Prize.

Written in beautiful, slightly quirky and so captivating prose, it’s full of vividly realised scenes and characters to care about, of engrossing argument in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. For me the main pleasure was of historical revisionism. In taking Thomas Cromwell as its hero, it effectively challenges the version of the English Reformation – indeed of the Protestant Reformation as a whole – that I absorbed from the nuns and brothers and, I’m embarrassed to acknowledge, remained pretty much intact under the assault of an undergraduate course in Reformation History. I’m consoled somewhat by having the great Erasmus as an offstage character who pretty much shares my understanding, and by a sense, especially toward the end, that it’s Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons rather than my young self that Hilary Mantel has in her sights. Thomas More – that’s Saint Thomas More to me – is portrayed here, among other things, a pitiless torturer and a misogynist a***hole. I suppose my younger self might have read this as Protestant propaganda. I hope I would have checked the evidence, and come to the conclusion that if it is propaganda, what it’s propagating is the view that rigid and intolerantly held religious views are an abomination, and that there is great virtue in devoting one’s self to making things go well.

I can’t read historical fiction these days without sensing Inga Clendinnen reading over my shoulder. I think she would approve of this.