Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Mantel’

This and that

May 7, 2015

A few quick notes about items of interest:

Wolf Hall: I mentioned before that a television mini-series dramatizing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is being broadcast. I myself haven’t seen any of it, but I have noticed a fair bit of commentary. When I read the book I complained about the slanted characterization of St Thomas More. At, Nancy Bilyeau unpacks the historical accuracies — or lack thereof — of the adaptation. Spoilers abound. (Hat-tip: Supremacy and Survival)


Chesterton: An appreciative essay on GKC from an unexpected source: The Atlantic. James Parker writes with a certain cheeky abandon, but with what strikes me as a good understanding of the man:

Chesterton was a journalist; he was a metaphysician. He was a reactionary; he was a radical. He was a modernist, acutely alive to the rupture in consciousness that produced Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”; he was an anti-modernist (he hated Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”). He was a parochial Englishman and a post-Victorian gasbag; he was a mystic wedded to eternity. All of these cheerfully contradictory things are true, and none of them would matter in the slightest were it not for the final, resolving fact that he was a genius.

Parker doesn’t try to hide the fact that Chesterton’s prose is something of an acquired taste, but then that is true of many good things in life:

His prose, if you don’t like it, is an unnerving zigzag between flippancy and bombast—and somewhere behind that, even more unnerving, is the intimation that these might be two sides of the same thing. If you do like it, it’s supremely entertaining, the stately outlines of an older, heavier rhetoric punctually convulsed by what he once called (in reference to the Book of Job) “earthquake irony.” He fulminates wittily; he cracks jokes like thunder. His message, a steady illumination beaming and clanging through every lens and facet of his creativity, was really very straightforward: get on your knees, modern man, and praise God.

It’s a funny and enjoyable essay, and I’d like to know more about this James Parker.


TS Eliot: Speaking of Eliot, the 52 Authors series continues at Light on Dark Water, and the most recent entry, written by Maclin Horton, is on his poetry. Don’t neglect to read the long comment by Cailleachbhan as well. Meanwhile, at the University Bookman, Martin Lockerd reviews a volume of Eliot’s correspondence, and at The Hudson Review William H. Pritchard reviews a collection of his early prose. So many books, so little time.

More on Mantel’s malicious More

January 24, 2015

My central complaint about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels was her “mean-spirited and calumnous” treatment of Thomas More, whom she portrayed as “a remorseless kill-joy and sadist.” (I am quoting myself.) At the time I recommended Peter Ackroyd’s biography of More for its more balanced appraisal.

Today I came across an even better, because more intimate, assessment of More’s character:

In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More. In society he is so polite, so sweet-mannered, that no one is of so melancholy a disposition as not to be cheered by him, and there is no misfortune that he does not alleviate. Since his boyhood he has so delighted in merriment, that it seems to be part of his nature…

In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.

In other words, hardly the crabbed old vulture of Mantel’s imagination. These words come from the pen of Erasmus, the great humanist of the age and no sycophant. Read the whole thing at Supremacy and Survival.

From the same source I learn that there is a new television programme based on Mantel’s novels, which more than justifies a renewed critical look at her portrayal.

(Incidentally, to base a television programme on those books seems an odd choice considering that their greatest merits are distinctly literary: their tone, diction, and even grammar, none of which translate well to the screen.)

Books briefly noted

July 11, 2014

A few quick notes on books I’ve read over the past few months:

wolfe-backtobloodBack to Blood
Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, & Co., 2012)
720 p.

Tom Wolfe returned after an hiatus of nearly ten years with this cheerful mess of a novel about life in the city of Miami. It’s a diffuse sort of story, but to the extent that it has a central character that character is Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban-American police officer with an unwitting talent for stirring the racial tensions present just beneath the surface of the city’s life. Unlike Wolfe’s better novels, the central plot of Back to Blood feels disconnected from the social and moral issues that he wants to explore — principally multiculturalism in a modern urban center. Though patchy at times, it is a lively story, told with Wolfe’s usual half-unhinged winsomeness. There is a most regrettable subplot — totally inessential, as it turns out — about pornography addiction; sure, it’s “topical”, but it feels shoehorned in and I, for one, could have really, really done without it. Really.

Bring Up The Bodiesmantel-bodies
Hilary Mantel
(HarperCollins, 2012)
432 p.

Last year I wrote with mixed impressions of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which followed Thomas Cromwell’s life from his childhood up to his establishment in the court of Henry VIII. It was from that lofty perch that he presided over Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the executions of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. This sequel, which, like its predecessor, won the Man Booker Prize, has a tighter focus: the action covers the period 1535-36 and Henry’s waning devotion to Anne Boleyn as his hopes alight upon Jane Seymour. As the title of the book suggests, this volatility in the royal affections results in a bloodbath, including, of course, in the final pages, the execution of Anne herself.

Given that gruesome terminus, it might be perverse to say that I enjoyed this panel of the story, and enjoyed it more than the first, but it is nonetheless true. I objected in Wolf Hall to what I took (and take) to be Mantel’s unjust portrait of More, but here I had no reason to take such offense (perhaps simply because of my own ignorance; I make no special claim for this novel’s historical accuracy). Interestingly, one of the literary aspects of the previous novel that I had praised — namely, the way in which Mantel, through artful use of pronouns, saturated the very grammar of her story with the force of Cromwell’s character — is downplayed in this second volume; there are an abundance of clarificatory “he, Cromwell”s to steady the reader, and this I found a little disappointing. I leave open the possibility, however, that it was done precisely to begin eroding our confidence in his competence and security.

Mantel does seem to be preparing us for his eventual downfall. There is a moment in Bring up the Bodies when his position in the court is suddenly shown to be very precarious indeed, and it comes as something of a shock to realize that even so expert a political animal as Cromwell can find himself outmaneuvered by events. He has the wit to call himself “a man whose only friend is the King of England,” but there is a hard truth behind the jest that will, I expect, be brought into the foreground in the projected next volume. In the meantime, Mantel’s traversal of this much-travelled historical territory makes for engrossing reading.

esolen-ironiesIronies of Faith
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2007)
420 p.

Irony might be thought to be the special province of post-modern skeptics, who have made much hay with it: cool detachment, hip knowingness, cynical distance. Irony can be, and has been, deployed as a kind of “universal solvent,” an engine of deconstruction. But Anthony Esolen wants to rescue irony from those associations and recover its place — a joyful, enriching, surprising place — at the heart of Christian devotion. In this book he plumbs great Christian literature for ironic themes and presents them for our consideration.

Is it surprising that there should be a place for irony in Christianity? This is a religion that plays endlessly with interchanges of first and last, mighty and lowly, strong and weak; it identifies a little baby with the Creator of all things, and worships as Lord an executed criminal. Esolen wants to stress that deep irony does not arrive from mere cleverness, but is rooted in a problem of knowledge. Irony arises, he argues, when an author reveals to the reader “a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows,” and he finds it pervades the Christian imagination.

The book ranges widely, with chapters devoted to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Spenser, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins, Tolkien, and many others. Some authors — Francois Mauriac and Alessandro Manzoni, for instance — I am not familiar with, and I confess I skipped over those chapters; I’ll return to them when the time comes. There is a very fine closing chapter devoted to the anonymous medieval poem “Pearl”, which Esolen calls “the greatest religious lyric in English”. It is indeed a superb poem, and this is the best and most accessible introduction to it that I have seen.

Literary criticism is not really my thing, but I found this book rewarding nonetheless, not so much for its ironic insights — irony is not really my thing either, I must admit — but for its thoughtful exploration of literary works that are deeper and richer than my reading can plumb. This is literary criticism born of love and informed by a long tradition of moral reflection. It is a very worthwhile book.

Mantel: Wolf Hall

March 16, 2013

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
(Harper Perennial, 2009)
672 p.

When Hilary Mantel’s ambitious historical novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, and then won the National Book Critics Circle Award the same year, I made a note of it; I don’t normally go out of my way to read contemporary fiction, but the Tudor period, and the life of Henry VIII in particular, is of more or less perpetual interest. Then in 2012 Mantel won the Man Booker Prize again, for Bring up the Bodies, the first of two planned sequels to Wolf Hall. I decided I had better take a look.

Wolf Hall charts the course of Thomas Cromwell as he rises from an undistinguished childhood in a working class family to become first the trusted advisor to Cardinal Wolsey and then, after Wolsey’s downfall, to become the king’s chief minister and, excepting the king, arguably the most powerful man in England. It is during this period — the early 1530s — that Henry VIII breaks with the Pope over his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marries Anne Boleyn; Cromwell is the man who greases the wheels. He is portrayed by Mantel as a pure pragmatist, personally loyal to individual persons — he never forgets the kindness shown him by Cardinal Wolsey, for instance — but indifferent to the distinction between temporal and spiritual power, and undettered by any alleged obstacle to the fulfillment of the king’s will.

Mantel does a lot of things right. Her evocation of Tudor England, and especially of the high-stakes political machinations of the royal court and its various outsized personalities, is a pleasure to behold. She goes about it with a sure — as in ‘confident’ — hand. Whether it is faithful or not is something that I cannot judge, but on its own terms it is largely convincing. Her Cromwell is a fine creation, superbly capable and “as cunning as a bag of serpents”, as she has Henry say of him; the part is written with nuance and intelligence.

Her style is interesting but difficult to describe. There is a thorny quality to the prose, an obliquity, with frequent sharp turns and lacunae that require the reader to pay close attention or risk losing the thread. Hers is a literary talent, and it is clear why the book attracted the attention of the awards committees. Moreover, the book is particularly unusual for its distinctive use of the pronoun “he”: it is frequently used in what seems to be an ambiguous manner. Who is “he”? Yet a few cases establish the pattern: in the absence of evidence to the contrary, “he” means Cromwell. More than just a stylistic tick, I believe this actually contributes to the characterization of Cromwell himself, who is somehow immanent in the very grammar of the story and seems almost to be a force of nature.

The central fault of the book — and it is no slight fault in my mind — is its portrayal of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. If the book has villains, is is them. To a certain extent this is natural and even appropriate, for they were the two men who most vigorously opposed the king’s absurd hubris. But her characterization of them — and especially of Thomas More — is mean-spirited and calumnous. She allows More a capacious intelligence and a certain dry wit, but essentially she portrays him as a remorseless kill-joy and sadist. Her treatment of his martyrdom, which is the narrative capstone of the book, is chilly. It is a notably unsympathetic portrait of a great man, and a saint. Naturally, any book that takes Thomas Cromwell as its hero is going to have a topsy-turvy moral perspective, but this mistreatment of More (and, though he is a much more peripheral figure in the story, of Fisher) put quite a strain on my good will. (I can recommend Peter Ackroyd’s fine biography of More, which gives a much more balanced appraisal.) The novel has been lauded in some quarters as a celebration of the triumph of the forces of reform and liberation — represented by Henry and Cromwell — over those of tradition and stagnation — More and Fisher — at the birth of the modern period. In my judgement this reading is too simplistic and does a disservice to the subtlety and craft of the story she tells, but to the extent that it is true, it is all too true.

Finally, a curiosity: “Wolf Hall” is the name of the house of the Seymour family, from which Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, will come. Jane does appear here and there in this book, but, if I remember correctly, no part of Wolf Hall actually takes place at Wolf Hall. Nonetheless, for a book that circles in and around Henry’s court, the title is remarkably apt.