Tudor sex and beheadings made complicated

Henry VIII

I’m reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel right now. It’s a historical novel about the efforts by Henry VIII of England and Anne Boleyn to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, so that he and Anne could marry instead and–so it was hoped–produce male heirs.

The rest, you might say, is history. What stood in Henry and Anne’s way was the Catholic Church, ie the pope, so Henry had to “fire” the church and start a new one, the Church of England, whence sprang Anglicanism and its offshoot, Episcopalianism.

The new marriage, however, was not, ahem, ideal and Henry went on to have a few more wives, while Anne, and an awful lot of other people, lost their heads.

In short, it is a fantastic topic, a fantastic story! The sort I love, because it is simultaneously:

  1. grand and important, and
  2. riveting and engrossing.

    If it were entertaining but trivial, I probably would not bother, because life is short and I want to spend it on important things. If it were important but boring, I also might not bother, because, well, life is short and I want to minimize my pain.

    Anne Boleyn

    So by being important and riveting, Mantel’s topic is exactly like the events that I chose as the main storyline in my own forthcoming book, ie the Punic Wars that led to the rise of Rome and the fall of Carthage. And this is one reason why I chose to read Wolf Hall. I wanted to see Mantel’s storytelling.

    The other reason is that the book won the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the English-speaking world. I distrust prizes, but at the same time they do promise to make our lives easier by pre-winnowing some of the wheat from the chaff. Others have taken their cue from the prize and are heaping more praise. So I started reading.

    What a disappointment

    I’m half-way through the book now, at page 200-and-something, and boy, is it hard work.

    I read, I get confused, I go a few pages back to see if I missed something, discover that I did not, struggle on, get tired, fall asleep, try again the next day.

    Thomas Cromwell

    Here are the problems, as I see them:

    1. Who the heck is speaking? Dialogue is difficult to write and separates great writers from mediocre ones. Mantel tells the story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, an influential lawyer and wheeler-dealer behind the scenes. She therefore makes him a default he in the story. The problem is that there are lots of other hes (ie, men), and when several men are talking, we don’t know which he is thinking, talking, doing whatever he is doing. This sounds banal, but it is annoying. It does not help that everybody is named Thomas (that’s not Mantel’s fault, of course).
    2. Who are all the people and why should I care? Mantel assumes that I already know all the characters, the chief ones being Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, Jane Seymour, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk and so forth. As it happens, I love history and have indeed heard of most of them before, but my knowledge of this era has got rusty. I wanted it to be Mantel’s job to re-introduce me to these people so that I don’t have to make an effort.
    3. What is the historical context, ie the import? Mantel assumes that we already know the interrelationships and geopolitical constellations between the Holy Roman Empire; the papacy; the French, Spanish and English kingdoms; and so forth. As it happens I do, sort of, know about these matters–at least more so than Mantel can expect from most readers–and it still does not suffice.

    Thomas Wolsey

    So I took time out and resorted to … Wikipedia. Yes, I did. I spent a good hour last night reading all the main characters’ entries, as well as brushing up on why, say, the Archbishop of York had less power than the Archbishop of Canterbury or who the heck a “Lord Chancellor” was again, and other matters that Mantel does not deign to make clear.

    Hilary: Is that what you want your readers to do–go to… Wikipedia????

    As it happens, it worked and Wikipedia did give me the context I need. But what an indictment of Mantel’s storytelling technique. The whole premise of books like this is that you get the history and the humanity, the importance and the drama, at the same time.

    Hilary, you seem to be too busy being ‘literary’–with complex points of view, revisionist interpretations and what not–to hold me by the hand. You were supposed to make it easy for me. You did not.

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    23 thoughts on “Tudor sex and beheadings made complicated

    1. Well said. And that, sir, is why we should be suspicious of books that win prestigious prizes. They tend not to be user friendly. I think the judges consider that to be a desirable attribute.

    2. Will you be writing a review of “Wolf Hall” for the Economist?!!!

      If so, you should be mindful (if you are not already) of the laudatory reviews of it in no less than The Guardian (UK), The Observer (UK), The Independent (UK), The Washington Post, The NY Review of Books, and The NY Times.

      The NY Times (Janet Maslin) did, however, say this: This witty, densely populated book may experience a rough passage when it crosses the Atlantic. For readers not fully versed in the nuances of England’s tangled royal bloodlines, not amused by Ms. Mantel’s deliberate obliqueness (“half the world is called Thomas,” the book observes, and it is in no hurry to differentiate one Thomas from another — or even to use proper names when a “he,” “him” or “his” will do) or not even familiar with the effect of the law of praemunire on the papacy, “Wolf Hall” has its share of stumbling blocks..

      Despite this echo of what you said, you still should have loved “Wolf Hall” as much as did Janet Maslin!!!

    3. Have you considered the possibility that Ms. Mantel may, in fact, work for Wikipedia and that her novel was deliberately designed as a traffic generator? I, for instance, work for Bayer on a freelance commission basis. Anytime I write something, I deliberately phrase it such that it gives the reader a splitting headache, and then I pocket 0.25% of the Bayer’s additional profits from the increase in Aleve sales immediately following the release of any of my writings (blog posts or whatever). Since I don’t write much and even then few people ever read it, it’s basically milkshake money, but for more prolific scribes such SCD’s (secret commission deals) can amount to a nice chunk of extra change in their bank accounts.

      • She strikes me as the Encyclopedia Britannica type. So let’s assume she’s cut a deal to kickbacks from their traffic but now everybody goes to the … free Wikipeda. Doh.

      • Wikipedia is free to use, but it features a conspicuous Donate Now button taglined “Wikipedia is there when you need it – now it needs you!” Additional traffic might help drive up the donations total.

    4. I worked up a rant about the Booker Prize, but I deleted it. This is not about the Booker Prize. It’s about the complicated-ness. I’m reminded (I hope) of one of the lessons of the book, “Zen of Seeing” (drawing as meditation, not on the Booker short list). One of the ideas is that of adding clarity by adding detail. This suggests that something can be detailed and not complicated (simple?). More work for the writer, less for the reader. I haven’t read ‘Wolf Hall,’ so who am I to say? I used to walk past the Canterbury Cathedral every day and I thought about those beheadings every time. If I had the story straight, I probably would have stopped thinking about it. It’s a complicated story. Not the usual ‘boy meets girl, boy chops girl’s head off’ kind of thing.

      • Don’t do that, Mr Crotchety. Don’t delete your rants. We want your rants.

        You said it much better than I did here: The writer should do more work so that the reader need do less, and “work” consists of choosing better (more telling) details.

        Mantel has dumped lots of detail on us, but it’s the sort of detail that passes as “writerly” these days. She leaves out details that we need.

        So it goes back to Rembrandt’s Man in the Golden Helmet: We need some light to illuminate the parts that are worth seeing, not the rest.

    5. After reading through reviews of Wolf Hall, by literary professionals and by amateur bloggers – reviews all favourable (I haven’t yet encountered any unfavourable – except yours!!) I’m forming the impression that readers who would like Wolf Hall would be those whose profession or avocation is writing about, or reading serious literature.

      Which is to say literary highbrows, who are in love with the sudden shifts from present tense to past tense, from the first-person to third, and the other literary devices which make life difficult for the non literary-expert reader – devices which may be intentional (perhaps unconsciously) to keep literature unsullied by the hoi-polloi.

      It would therefore be literary highbrows who Hilary Mantel is writing for. If one isn’t a literary highbrow, and wishes to read novels about the England of Henry VIII, then Philippa Gregory may be more one’s cup of tea. If one is more interested in the actual history, then why not just read actual history books and biographies.

      Is it a good thing for contemporary novels to be divided between those for literary experts, and those for the rest? Some think it not a good development.

      But why isn’t it? If books on science can be divided between those for the expert scientist, and those for the general reader, and everyone says this is fine; why isn’t it fine for literature?

      Do we not live in the age of the Specialist?

      That said, I – even though a decided non literary-expert, and definitely of the hoi-polloi – will probably now fork out $40 to read Wolf Hall, because you’ve piqued my curiosity.

      • Good points and there is no question that there are different ‘levels’ of complexity and sophistication of both readers and texts, if you’ll forgive the term.

        I might suggest that one of the reasons that you have found that reviews of Wolf Hall are predominately positive is because most reviewers (who may or may not have read and assimilated the work) are merely satisfied that the book is prize winner and will therefore rave about it. After all, if they disagree with the judges, the burden of proof is on them. Alternatively, having read the book and found it abstruse they will rave about it to demonstrate that they ‘got’ it. Forgive my cynicism.

      • I had the same suspicions that Thomas did (ie, that once a Man Booker Prize is awarded, the reviewers will form an orderly queue to discover good things to say about the novel). So I wanted to take the plunge and trust my own instinct.

        But I do feel guilty. I have certain highbrow tendencies. Ahem. I just think that real quality, if not genius, transcends high and lowbrow and remains simple and elegant in an Einsteinian/Brancusian way.

        Basically, Phil, your theory seems to be that Mantel was showing off. Well, she shouldn’t.

        (And btw, if she really was showing off, then, and only then, I permit myself to remark that she makes lots of grammatical errors. She uses WHOM when WHO is correct, confusing object and subject, and I can only guess that she was being pompous.)

    6. “If it were important but boring, I also might not bother, because, well, life is short and I want to minimize my pain.”

      I would suspect that many important issues are ignored, in principle, for this very reason.

      There is comfort in the dangers of pseudo innocence.

      Voluntary ignorance breeds a treacherous ease only disturbed by the importance of the excluded.

    7. I notice that Wolf Hall one of the best books of the year as chosen by The Economist, so I would like to believe the book has some literary. You’ve told us what you didn’t like, but is there anything you did like, apart from the subject matter ?

      • Oh yes. (After all, I’m still reading it).

        The genre is what I like most. In my imagination I live in history. And Mantel does give us an intriguing (an admittedly underwhelming adjective) interpretation of some great characters. When I decide to overlook her self-conscious and confusing writing style, I do submerge into her world.

        What I was really saying in the post is not that the book is bad (it is not) but that it is disappointing, because it is not nearly as good as the critics are lining up to make it seem.

        Incidentally, I’ve already noticed that my seemingly “bad” review has made some of you more, not less, likely to buy the book. Mantel should thank me. And I might hope for similarly “bad” reviews when my book comes out. 😉

    8. An utterly moronic review. I assumed I was readings the late night rantings of some spotty “military studies” phd student or an army vet with pretensions to intellectualism. I still can’t quite believe that this was writen by a long standing economist journalist and makes me wonder why i still have a subscription.

      The analysis is trivial and misleading, the data inaccurate, and the judgements banal and rather nauseating.

      Wolf Hall is not a high faluting “literary” novel. Have you ever read Ulysses? It’s a largely chronological tale of very well-known historical events, through the prism of an engaging central character. There are no literary tricks of any kind – if you’ve never read a novel that has speech that’s not in direct quotation marks I pity you. Even Grisham is occasionally that sophisticated.

      And sorry if Mantel doesn’t clog up her narrative with retelling vast chunks of history so you can get the facts straight. My copy has a chronology, two family trees, and a seven page list of characters – more than enough. Would you prefer Mantel have a long non fiction section at the beginning? Or that she spells out what has happened in clumsy chunks of dialogues in her characters’ mouths like some crappy historical who-dunnit?

      I’ll make a note to tell Count Tolstoy next time I see him, or Joseph Roth, or Walter Scott. There was a time when historical novelists were able to assume their readers were knowledgeable, intelligent and curious, and would seek more knowledge if required without complaining about it. Clearly Mr Kluth would rather readers were treated like school children.

      I can’t even be bothered to re read his pathetic piece – I note he is the author of one of those ghastly history books pitched at the corporate workplace so perhaps it’s not surprising. But all I can say is that most people are more intelligent than the middle management drones you try to sell your ahistorical, warmed-up Sun Tzu to. Wolf Hall was one of the top ten best selling fiction hardbacks in the UK in the last decade. Everyone I know from teachers, to businesswomen, to politicians, has adored it.

      There is a simple reason for this. People want – indeed crave – intelligent writing about weighty subjects that doesn’t patronize the reader, and that genuinely conveys not only drama, excitement but even – as Mantel does, some of the magic and mystery of how individuals meet challenges and seek to mould or are moulded by history.

      I used to think people read the Economist for similar reasons. But if this author writes for them I’m not so sure? By the way could you include a primer on the bond market in each (and every subsequent) issue? And an explanation of the American constitution and how it works in practice? And an account of the last ten years events in the Middle East? Thanks. In every issue, mind.

    9. You may be flattered to know that this post of yours was the centre a very recent exchange between me and “Cheri”, who, if you remember, was one of your regular readers in the days when you lived in California.

      “Cheri”‘s posting *is here*. Our discussion of what you’d said about “Wolf Hall” covers the last (final) four (or maybe five) comments to “Cheri”‘s posting.

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