The Cromwell Trilogy

Wolf Hall; Bring Up the Bodies; The Mirror and the Light

By Hilary Mantel

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Most of the time, when we say that we love a book, we mean that we love the literary work as a whole. We love the book: the plot, the characters, the prose, the descriptions and pacing, the resolution, the lessons, the intersection of the book and our selves and our lives.

But sometimes, when we say we love a book, what we really mean is: I love the character that animates this book. It isn’t that we don’t like or appreciate the other stuff; it’s that that stuff is really just the medium through which the character is communicated to us. Sometimes the love of a book is really a love affair with a character.

The first of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, ‘Wolf Hall‘, came out in 2009. Its critical reception was ecstatic: it won the Man Booker (as did its sequel, ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘, the only pair of novel and sequel to have ever done so) and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Guardian named it the best book of the 21st century.

I read it when it came out, and found it exactly as flabbergastingly excellent as everyone else. It is rare that a book lives up to the hype, right? The problem with books that unite critics in rapturous consensus is that, while you may love them when you finally get around to reading them, it’s almost impossible for them to take you by surprise. You approach them, necessarily, waiting for them to justify themselves; you read them in a state of constant anticipation, on the lookout for excellence.

Wolf Hall‘ did surprise me, though.

The protagonist of the Cromwell trilogy is Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, the man who served as chief minister to Henry the VIII for eight years until he was executed on orders from his king in 1540.

What is clear from these novels is that Hilary Mantel loves Thomas Cromwell, and, because she loves him so much and because she is such a good writer, the result is that I love him just as deeply. A reading of the Cromwell trilogy becomes, therefore, an experience of profound love, not of books, but of a man: the love of the author for subject, communicated to her readers.

I suspect that I am not the only reader for whom this attachment to the fictionalized person of Thomas Cromwell was the salient experience of reading the ‘Wolf Hall‘ novels. Mantel’s Cromwell (I am, at this point, totally unable to disambiguate her character from the “real”, historical man) is one of the most persuasive characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. He is measured, sardonic, wise. Humane, possessed of a capacious memory and an eye for detail. He’s brave, sentimental, effective, and ruthless. He is so lovable that Mantel’s readers may easily fail to notice that he has become, over the course of her books, a monster.

Cromwell, by Holbein

After a brief glimpse into his childhood, the Cromwell trilogy introduces us to Thomas during his employment for Cardinal Wolsey, who was, at the time, first advisor to Henry VIII. The reader’s first real impression of him is his love for this man, the Cardinal, his admiration and loyalty.

Wolsey fell from grace when he was unable to secure a divorce for Henry from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell manages to secure this divorce, and further secures the crown for Anne Boleyn, thus earning himself a place in Henry’s confidence. These novels are about that relationship: between Cromwell and his king, the obsession, the love and the fear, the minute study a subject makes of his ruler.

I will never be able to explain why I have loved Mantel’s Cromwell so deeply. I can only say that I loved him from the first chapters of ‘Wolf Hall‘: his immovability, his wit, his clarity about everyone except himself.

Mantel is a great writer, really magnificent. Her prose is plain, sometimes almost like a sermon, but she shows, doesn’t tell. The only person who tells is Cromwell, and he tells beautifully. That’s why, perhaps, when the books are through, it is Cromwell you love, and not Mantel. This is maybe the surest sign of her achievement: you, as reader, can’t help but confuse her grace for her protagonist’s.

But the fact that Mantel shows and doesn’t tell means that some of the most important emotional developments of the book happen slowly, subtly, and might be missed: there is no announcement, no climax.

Cromwell was a Protestant, a sincere follower (according to Mantel) of Luther and Tyndale. One of the animating relationships of the book is the one between him and Sir Thomas More. More, who, in real life, was a complete fuckhead, is a complete fuckhead in ‘Wolf Hall‘ as well: a Catholic zealot, a one-man English Inquisition, he spends most of the book burning Protestants.

More and Cromwell are respectful enemies: both are men of the law and of the Holy Book, but one requires that the book be written in Latin, the other longs for it to be written in English. Cromwell, like Mantel’s readers, deplores More’s methods: the torture, the burning of heretics. So right is his opposition to Thomas More that readers will continue to feel themselves on his side, to find him persuasive, when he himself begins to have people executed (indeed, burned) for papacy, under the charge of treason.

I think that Mantel does this on purpose, because I believe, I really, really believe, that she loves Thomas Cromwell, and that she has endeavored to make us love him. And just as his love for his king requires a certain, side-eyed blindness to his foolishnesses and weaknesses, just as all love requires some blindness to fault, so our love for him will require blindness to his faults, apologies for them, sympathy with them.

Hilary Mantel

So we will notice that he has become a murderer, but we still fear for him as his enemies gather and gain momentum, and we will rage when they surround him and have him arrested, and we will grieve when he is executed, and the third book ends. And I know that I, personally, will never quite be able to forgive Henry VIII.

There is probably a more rigorous discussion to be had about the three individual books; I suspect that ‘Wolf Hall‘ is by far the best of the three, but I’m frankly unable to discern a difference, because it is the man that I love, not the books, and the man is in all three. As I mentioned above, I read ‘Wolf Hall’ when it came out, and then ‘Bring Up the Bodies‘ in its turn, but I reread both before picking up ‘The Mirror & the Light‘, read all three in one go, and I can no longer tell them apart; I can’t even remember now where one ends and the other begins.

But I know that he, Thomas, is dead now, in a way he was not, for me, last week. And in this way the Cromwell trilogy has been, truly, more of a relationship than a reading experience: I do not feel that I could go back again, read them from the beginning, start with him from his youth. He is dead, he died, I was there, and there is no going home again.

I am quite used to having relationships with books – relationships with people are more complicated. But they are, ultimately, richer, I think, the relationships with people. I don’t know whether how I feel about the Cromwell trilogy is richer than how I feel about books I have loved, but it is simpler: I just love its main character. That’s all. The language, the descriptions, the vivid imaginings, all contribute to my understanding of, relationship with, love of the man at its heart.

Ivanhoe

By Sir Walter Scott

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I think we sometimes assume that old stories are boring stories.

Ivanhoe‘ is an old story. I found my copy in my favorite used bookstore, ‘Second Story Books‘ in Washington D.C. It’s a Heritage Press Edition, and I’ll confess to a weakness for this kind of hardback reprint. They are wildly inconvenient and hard to read (too heavy, difficult to hold), but they really make you feel as though you are reading a proper book. And I’m a sucker for proper books.

But I bought my ‘Ivanhoe‘ years ago and, clearly, I haven’t been in a rush to read it. Honestly, as beautiful as my edition is, I suspected that it was going to be boring. I took a run at it a year or so ago: it opens with a brief exposition of the continuing effects of the Norman Conquest, and then cuts to a scene in the middle of an old-growth English forest, where two good-hearted Saxon yeomen are complaining about anti-poaching laws. So, yeah, it seemed like it was going to be really, really boring – I put that thing down like it was on fire and didn’t pick it up again until last week.

Old stories aren’t just boring-seeming because they’re, well, old, and because we think we’ve heard them already (although that is part of it) – it’s because we think that old stories are simple.

And they sometimes are, but we mostly think that old stories are simple because old stories are foundational – they are the stories upon which later stories have elaborated. They aren’t simple, but they are archetypal, which makes them predictable.

They also aren’t modern, which is obvious but important. They aren’t written in our vernacular, and their vernacular often seems cheesy to us: lacks the rawness, or subtlety, or emotional complexity, of our own.

All of which gives these stories a sort of hokey, old-timey feel which can strike some people as quaint and some people as lame.

Ivanhoe‘ lands right in the sweet-spot of this quaint/lame zone. This is a long-ass novel of Ye Olde England, and it’s filled with all the cliches of that genre. Robin Hood is here, Friar Tuck is here, Richard the Lion-Heart is here (his wicked brother John is here); there is an archery contest, there is chivalry and maidens and Sherwood Forest and wicked Norman knights and valiant Saxon knights and tournaments of honor.

But it’s a classic, and my beautiful copy kept calling to me, so I took another stab at it.

Pretty quickly, though, after I pushed through the two soul-crushingly boring yeoman, I realized two things:

  1. Ivanhoe‘ is a weirdly complicated story. Its plot is complicated; its characters are complicated; its morals are complicated.
  2. I actually have heard this story before.

As it turns out, big parts of Disney’s ‘Robin Hood‘ (you know, the amazing cartoon from when we were all kids, where Robin Hood is a fox and Little John is a bear?) is ‘Ivanhoe’-adjacent. There is no Maid Marion in the novel, but the whole scene with Robin Hood at the tournament taunting Prince John and winning the archery contest in disguise? That’s ‘Ivanhoe‘.

But Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ is a simple story of good and evil – ‘Ivanhoe‘ isn’t. Or, it is, but with a lot of shades in between.

The story is almost unnecessarily complicated, and several attempts to summarize the plot have convinced me that it isn’t a worthwhile exercise. Part of the problem is that ‘Ivanhoe‘ is actually many stories woven together: two love stories, one tragic, one classic; a tale of chivalric honor over villainy; several tales of knightly valor; three tales about the honor of thieves; one tale of a sibling rivalry between two princes; a tale of a prodigal son; a tale about the loyalty of servants, and the wisdom of fools; a tale of a wicked usurper and a virtuous king; a story of the Jewish diaspora, and the terrible wickedness of Christians to Jews; and a tale of palace intrigue, all set against the backdrop of the tale of a conquered people trying regain their dignity. With some comic relief thrown in.

It’s a lot, and that really doesn’t even begin to describe it all. Before everything is through, there will be a tournament, a siege, Robin Hood will end up fighting alongside Richard the Lion-Heart, a castle will burn down with people in it, maidenly virtue will be rewarded, maidenly lack of virtue will be mocked and punished, a beautiful woman will be tried for witchcraft, a man will die of a broken heart, someone will come back from the dead, and lots and lots of horrible things will be said about Jews.

A Maiden

And I know that this sounds like a bunch of tropes all strung together into some sort of batshit Merry Old England mad-lib, and it kind of is! But if you’re expecting something simple, something quaint, ‘Ivanhoe’ isn’t it.

And if you are expecting easy moral takeaways, ‘Ivanhoe‘ won’t give them to you. There is one pure villain and maybe two pure heroes – everyone else is complicated. People are strong and weak, they succeed and fail, they are subject to imperfections but may overcome them, with work. They love truly, but with private reservations. They have virtues and failings, and sometimes they die and it’s unfair, and sometimes they are forgiven and it’s even less fair. It’s all very…modern.

Well, not all of it. The equivocation is modern – the Jew-hating chivalry is not.

Sir Walter Scott apparently used to be hot shit in Britain. He was a poet and author in the early/mid 19th century, but he was equally or more famous for his novels. ‘Ivanhoe‘ is the one for which he is best remembered now, but at the time he was also known for the Waverly novels, and ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’.

And one gets the sense, reading ‘Ivanhoe‘, that he was also pretty progressive for his time. A major theme of ‘Ivanhoe’ is that Jews are People, Too, pleaded with the sort of earnest heavy-handedness that indicates to me that the message was not uncontroversial.

Sir Walter Scott

And it’s a good message, but it’s delivery is decidedly pre-modern: Scott is going way out of his way to show you that, despite all the usury and their maniacal love of riches, Jews are also capable of love and goodness, even, in some rare cases, true human virtue. At one point, Robin Hood must admonish Isaac of York not to spare any expense in saving his daughter’s life:

“Yet, ere Isaac departed, the outlaw chief bestowed on him this parting advice: ‘Be liberal of thine offers, Isaac, and spare not thy purse for thy daughter’s safety. Credit me, that the gold thou shalt spare in her cause will hereafter give thee as much agony as if it were poured molten down thy throat.'” (p. 327)

And though Isaac acquiesces, because he loves his daughter (because, remember: Jews are People, Too!), the loss of fortune hurts him. Though the depictions of Isaac and Rebecca are meant to sympathetic, they are in fact anti-semitic and vile, and they represent, for me, an immovable obstacle to loving this book truly.

We’re allowed to be ambivalent about classics. It’s hard to remember that, sometimes, when we’re confronted by a handsome old hardback. But we are: we don’t have to love them. We can hate them, or like some parts of them and hate other parts. We can marvel at the complexity of the story and recoil at the endless, patronizing anti-semitism and laugh at the old-timey language and roll our eyes at the values.

I wonder sometimes whether classics are not our best-loved novels, but the ones which evoke the strongest ambivalence from us. The ones that elicit the strongest positive and negative emotions from us, at once. ‘Ivanhoe‘ was a ripping read, I tore through it, and I was held genuinely in suspense. That’s not to say that I loved it, but I’ll remember it.

A Handful of Dust

By Evelyn Waugh

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Waugh Collection
My Waughs

Evelyn Waugh has always epitomized, for me, the kind of arch, precise English literature which I love most in the world.  His best books, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘, ‘Scoop‘, or ‘The Loved One‘, are masterpieces of dry, unsparing social observation.  ‘Scoop‘, for example, is satire, dark and snide, but ‘Brideshead‘ is more complicated, and more melancholy, a story about love and its slow dissolution.

It’s my opinion that ‘A Handful of Dust‘ is not one of Waugh’s best, but Waugh is like sex, or Graham Greene: even when he’s mediocre, he’s still the best thing going.  It’s the story of the happy but boring marriage of Tony and Brenda Last, which becomes disrupted when Brenda begins an affair with the deeply ordinary and romantically unconvincing John Beaver (who lives with his ghastly mother).A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust‘ is a novel of social and moral derangement.  Set after the First World War, the population of this novel have lost an essential decency, and so, under their lovely English manners, they act with complete ethical incoherence.  Waugh often imbues his novels with this sense of polite dissonance, which, when it works, makes them bleak and devastating in the best possible way, but, when it doesn’t work, makes me feel vaguely panicky.

My sense of foreboding is learned, because in many (most?) Waugh novels, people meet terrible ends, and they meet them unremarked and unmourned.  Waugh, better than anyone else, captures for me the sense of unreality which must have characterized life in Europe after World War I: all the daily motions, the little rituals of life, undercut by a sense that you might be swallowed up at any time by a chaos unimaginable by your father’s father.  People pretended to get back to normal, but how can you be normal when you know that life is meaningless?  And how can life be anything but meaningless, when you have watched most of the young men of your generation ground into muddy, disintegrating death by the machine of total war?

Waugh communicates this meaninglessness by the juxtaposition of his fine manners with the complete amorality of his universe, all of which is explicated in his punctilious prose.  His characters inflict grave injury on each other in the calmest manner, and I think it is this calm which makes me so anxious when it goes awry.  I’m not sure that the characters in ‘A Handful of Dust‘ are well-elaborated enough to carry his nihilism, so their bad behavior simply feels unrelenting.

However, at the end of the day, I don’t read Waugh for his characters; the point of Waugh is his beautiful language, and he can always be counted on to serve up some consummate prose.  And, in fact, the same emotionlessness which makes his characters hard to bear makes his writing effective and funny; his flat affect is what makes him so droll.

For example:

“Aunt Francis, with acid mind, quickly discerned the trouble and attempted to reassure her, saying, ‘Dear child, all these feelings of delicacy are valueless; only the rich realize the gulf that separates them from the poor.'” (p. 71)

Or:

“The fourth weekend after Brenda’s departure from Hetton was fixed for Tony’s infidelity.  A suite was engaged at a seaside hotel (“We always send our clients there.  The servants are well accustomed to giving evidence”) and private detectives were notified.  “It only remains to select a partner,” said the solicitor; no hint of naughtiness lightened his gloom.  “We have on occasions been instrumental in accommodating our clients but there have been frequent complaints, so we find it best to leave the choice to them.'” (p. 157)

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Evelyn Waugh: It would be difficult to look more English.

Or, in what is my favorite sentence from the novel:

“All over England, people were waking up, queasy and despondent.” (p. 16)

Sentences like that, presented almost entirely without context and yet elegantly encapsulating an entire worldview, are why I love Waugh, why I will always read him, and re-read him.  For dismal precision, he has no equal.