Saturday, 11 August 2018

Post 78: Looking Back in all Weathers

Fountains Abbey with thanks
to Professor Colin Platt of
Southampton University for
inspiring me to make this visit.
Summer always heralds a good spell of reading and this year's heatwave has meant that sitting still in the shade has been the most sensible option! Since my last post, I have finished This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I have listened to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.  I'm currently reading All For Nothing by Walter Kemposki.

I read much of Wolf Hall in a window seat at a hotel in Harrogate.  I had harboured a desire to visit both Fountains Abbey and the Bronte Parsonage for over thirty years! That's the thing with UK-based wish-lists: you can put things off indefinitely. We decided that these ambitions weren't going to realise themselves, so we used Child 2's holiday to Valencia as an excuse to take a mini-break of our own to the wilds of Yorkshire.

And it was indeed the north!  Even in the heatwave and with the wildfires in Manchester, the temperature gauge dropped steadily as we headed up the M1.  And by the time we reached Fountains, the heavens had opened! The following day in Haworth proved that the moors have their own weather system...we walked sections of the Bronte Way and the Pennine Way in wind, sunshine, heat, clouds and horizontal rain! I'm just glad that I had waterproofs and walking shoes rather than skirts and a bonnet!

Heading up to Wuthering Heights
Having been to the Parsonage and been tempted by a handsome set of Bronte quotation mugs, I realised that with such a limited number of titles between them, I really should have read them all.  But I haven't.  I, like many before me, have a much-thumbed and re-read copy of Jane Eyre and, much as I enjoyed walking to Top Withens, I have previously admitted that Wuthering Heights would never make my top ten reads (sorry Rhys).  But that is the sum total of my shameful Bronte reading.  I have Shirley, Villette, The Professor and Tenant of Wildfell Hall on my shelves, but rather like the parsonage itself, they have been on my getting-around-to list for several decades!

I decided long ago that I don't like multiple books on the go at the same time, but I am happy to have an audiobook for the kitchen and the car whilst physically reading another.  I thoroughly enjoyed Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall on Audible. It amused me how often I thought the story was coming to a natural end, only for another quite similar plot arc to spring from its predecessor!  It is dated in its courtship rituals of course, but quite rightly is renowned for its feminist themes.  Helen Graham/Huntingdon is a strong portrayal of a woman who is not prepared to be obliged to a man who is adulterous and selfish. Like Jane Eyre, Anne Bronte produces a heroine who leads the way to female equality and modernity.  What else would we expect from Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell!

650 pages annotated, and still
the spine isn't bent!  Result!    
And so to another feminist in Anne Boleyn (or perhaps merely an ambitious and self-seeking would-be Queen, depending on your take on Tudor history). I confess here that I have previously owned a copy Wolf Hall and subsequently sent it to a charity shop, daunted by both its size and a curious use of the third person in the narrative voice.  I re-bought it because it was on the Warwick Uni reading list for historical fiction. With the incentive to read as much as I can before I get there, I took to the tome with renewed enthusiasm.  And it paid off.  With all long books, reading them quickly is a marked advantage, otherwise you risk being bogged down in the detail or, psychologically, just getting stuck in the middle, when your bookmark doesn't seem to be making significant progress towards the end.  I gave myself a minimum target of 50 pages a day and that seemed to be a workable strategy.

The book centres on the rise of Anne Boleyn and her determined efforts to become Queen.  Alongside such ambition are powerful men of court and a constant undercurrent of religious reformation that was sweeping Europe and infiltrating England even prior to Henry VIII's establishment as Head of the Church through the Act of Supremacy. I studied this period in history whilst an undergraduate and so to read a fictionalised version was very interesting.

Mantel has won major awards for this book, and I can see why.  The historical detail is accurate and she involves a raft of characters from the English courts and the international scene.  She uses Thomas Cromwell as her homogenising character: the novel opens with the fall of Wolsey, and Cromwell is relevant here as Wolsey's right-hand-man.  But Cromwell is a commoner and as such has no right to the accolades he later received from the King.  Chapter 2 makes it clear that he came from nothing.  He had an impoverished and cruel childhood which led to him fleeing abroad to escape from his father.

Image result for hans holbein thomas cromwell
Portrait of Cromwell by
Hans Holbein
I particularly liked the way that Mantel depicted Cromwell. I remember my history books portraying him as calculating, with little or no compassion, but she presents him differently.  It is clear that he is vastly intelligent: he speaks multiple languages and is shrewd in his dealings in business and in court. He sets himself up as a lawyer and moneylender and acquires both wealth and influence.  But he is loyal and loving. His relationships with his wife, children and household members are tender and genuine, and he even earns respect and some grudging friendship from his enemies. I liked this.  It seems logical that such a successful man, one who can survive the fall of his master only to rise from the debris with greater power and influence, must be good with people.  Mantel presents him as someone who is straightforward and can be both hated and trusted at the same time.

Indeed it is this characterisation that compels readers to the end of the book.  She is sparing in revealing his past, and we stay interested in what he may have done as a child, a young man and a soldier.  There are hints of brutality, but they are never fully exposed, so empathy is constant throughout. There is also humour, revealed in Cromwell's conversation with his son when the Hans Holbein painting is finished: “He turns to the painting. "I fear Mark was right."
.... I once heard him say I looked like a murderer," and Gregory responds with, "Did you not know?” 
By the end of the book, Anne Boleyn is Queen (I don't think that counts as a spoiler!) but her hold over Henry is waning.  It definitely needs its sequel and I think I may Bring Up The Bodies on my holiday in Crete later in the summer!

This is a challenging read, but satisfying.  The construct is masterful as Mantel consistently refers back to small details and expands on them as the story progresses.  And the title? Wolf Hall serves as a foreshadowing of the next Queen in line for an ageing Henry.  The Hall is the family seat of the Seymours and is a prime example of delectable detail throughout the novel as we learn of incest and bullying in the household through apparently inconsequential hearsay.  That Thomas Cromwell likes Jane himself may well make for a compelling plotline in the sequel.  I look forward to it!