Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wolf Hall Wednesday: The first one hundred pages


"So now, get up."
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. his head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
p.13
So begins Wolf Hall. The "he" who has fallen is Thomas Cromwell. In the next paragraph we learn just who has knocked him 'full length on the cobbles'.
"Blood from the gash on his head —which was his father's first effort — is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father's boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut."               
 p.13
Before we can really register the brutality of Cromwell's father's actions, he's at it again —
 "So now get up!" Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next."                                    
p.13 
Urggh! That bold and shocking beginning really drew me in. The language, while it doesn't aim to be contemporary, somehow is. And the scene is utterly cinematic, we can't help but see every kick as Thomas sees it coming at him. No wonder it was so quickly optioned for the screen!

Poor Cromwell, bullied by his brute of a father, somehow manages to get away, finding his way to his sister Kat's tavern Pegasus the Flying Horse. She calls for her husband and when one of the serving girls tells her he's gone to town —
"She thrusts the tray at the girl. "If you leave them where the cats can get at them, I'll box your ears till you see stars."                           
p.14 
Nothing dull about this particular historical fiction! Nothing staid, no long introductory setup, no flowery description of Cromwell's background. Mantel's writing crackles in its directness; it's as if she knew she has to draw us in deeply right at the beginning — because otherwise, ew, history, boringggg! — and she wastes no time getting to it. Instead of staying with his sister and bringing their father's wrath down on her, Thomas, still bruised and bloodied, runs away, travels to France where he hopes to find a war and join the fighting.
"He walks around the docks saying to people, do you know where there's a war just now?
Each man he asks stares at his face, steps back and says, "You tell me!"
They are so pleased with this, they laugh at their own wit so much, that he continues asking, just to give people pleasure"
p.23 

The next time we meet him, he's a forty year old man, back in England, married to Elizabeth "Liz" Wysyk. Their meeting, unromantic, pragmatic but funny, not unlike the 'meet cute' trope in a romantic comedy. Cromwell indicates his interest to her father who calls her downstairs, and talks to her bluntly. She answers just as directly.
"You want a new husband. Will he do?"
She stood and looked him up and down. "Well, Father. You didn't pick him for his looks." To him, her eyebrows raised, she said, "Do you want a wife?"
 p.48
The writing style was just so surprising to me; I haven't read historical fiction for awhile, fearing the heaviness of writers working hard to capture a period, filling it with a lot of thou's and thee's and what not. But Mantel, while using vocabulary long out of fashion, like 'bawling' in the following passage, never makes us feel like we're wading through the mire. When they have their first child, Gregory, she paints Cromwell as a thoughtful and doting father  -
"Bawling, strong, one hour old, plucked from the cradle: he kissed the infant's fluffy skull and said, I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me. For what's the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?"                                    
 p. 49

By this time Cromwell is in the service of the king, working under Cardinal Wolsey. He's learned a thing or two about power and politics, and Wolsey trusts him to be his spy in the court, to determine how seriously Henry wants to be free of Katherine of Aragon, and what they'll need to do to make it happen, with the approval of the catholic church.

Mantel's magic is how she humanizes these characters, these bigger-than-life men of history.



"The cardinals chin rests on his hand; with finger and thumb, he rubs his eyes. "The king called me this morning," he says, "exceptionally early."
"What did he want?"
"Pity. And at such an hour. I heard a dawn mass with him, and he talked all through it. I love the king. God knows how I love him. But sometimes my faculty of commiseration is strained."
 p. 30

I love Mantel's writing style, the freshness and immediacy of it. The story is told from Cromwell's point of view, and since Mantel never identifies him as Thomas or Cromwell but only as 'he', there are times when it can be a bit tricky on the occasion that there's more than one 'he'  in the room! Or more than one Thomas! Cardinal Wolsey, the Archbishop of York is a Thomas, as is the Lord Chancellor Thomas More who takes over after the cardinal falls. Anne Boleyn's father is also Thomas as is her uncle. That's a whole lot of Thomas's to keep track of!

Mantel has provided a Tudor family tree, along with that of the Yorkist claimants and a full and helpful cast of characters at the start of the book, a tool I'm sure I'll need going forward but in these early chapters I muddled through. I say muddled as there were times when the history got a little dense and I fess up to skimming just a wee little bit. Mostly it's a fascinating and lively look at this man who is mostly known as a historical figure, a label, an important player in anything we've seen or read about Henry VIII but not a man we usually get to see outside his function: the hugely powerful personage who helped King Henry VIII get rid of Katherine of Aragon so he could wed that tart Ann Boleyn.  Ruthless, unemotional, logical. A lawyer in fact. That's the shorthand view we have anyway. In Mantel's version we see his sharpness, his manipulative side but we see his softer side — even ruthless power mongers have softer sides, wives they love, children they tuck in and kiss goodnight.

We get to know him through his relationships with his wife who he calls Liz and Lizzie, and with Cardinal Wolsey with whom he shares a long and intimate relationship. Mantel creates such depth, by the physical life she imbues them with, as well as the human charms and foibles, the small details, petty complaints and jealousies that make us human. Pure villain? Cromwell doesn't come off like that at all; he's much more interesting.

Within the first hundred pages we've seen young Cromwell grow from a 13 or 14 year old boy abused by his father to a powerful man within the court. We've seen him tragically lose his wife to the 'sweating sickness'. We've seen him rise to power, furious and combative, while Wolsey is stripped of his. A warning from the king. He wants that annulment, damn it! (I must warn you, while we hear of the king's desire, I've not seen any sex yet. Not sure how that plays out in the miniseries) We've also seen the beginnings of his interest in the writings of Martin Luther, which he reads secretly, and what will lead to the dissolution of the catholic church in England, as a way to serve the king's pleasure.

I'm enjoying the reading, and as I announced last Wednesday, still hope to lure some of you to join me before the program — a distillation of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies — debuts here in the states on April 7th on Masterpiece. The reading commitment is pretty light, about a hundred pages per week. No takers, so far. Oh well. I'll have to "Stay Calm and Read On" but if you care to join me, add your thoughts and/or your Wolf Hall related blog link — it doesn't have to be current so long as it's relevant — in the comments section below. If even one of you indicates a desire, I'll do the work to add Mr. Linky.

BBC has been airing the program for the past couple of weeks in the UK, so I'm pinching pictures from the television show. I've also found this reading guide which will likely come in handy as I move beyond these beginning chapters.

Wolf Hall stars Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey, Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn. Natalia Little plays Liz, poor Lizzie she barely stays alive for the first episode. Ditto for Christopher Fairbank who appears as Cromwell's absusive father, Walter, a blacksmith and brewer. Still from what I've read so far, I can't wait. In addition to complaints that it's too dark, and the men don't bulge in their codpieces, I've heard it's a bit confusing. Yeah, I can imagine. Which is why I'm reading the book. Join me?

Wolf Hall Wednesday: Week #2

Wolf Hall Wednesday: Week #3

2 comments:

  1. Wow. I have to say, yours is the first review that has made me even a little interested in reading this books. I don't stay away from historical fiction per se, but fiction set in that time period is so rarely done well that mostly I just want to roll my eyes at it.

    Thanks for making me see just how exciting and accessible a period like this can be in the hands of the right writer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's early going yet, hopefully it will continue in the same vein!

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