It’s been years since I read fiction seriously- not as a fly-by night affair punctuating ‘real reading’ but fully awake, pencil in hand. The novel is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, set in Tudor England, focused on the ascendancy of Thomas Cromwell, the minister who got Henry VIII his first divorce (and lost his life after the fourth). I shall put up a proper (if terribly elliptical) review, but the novel has made me powerfully nostalgic for the rhythm and nuance of fiction: the most vivid non fiction cannot match the pleasure of an intricate plot and interesting people. I thought a miss-list might help exorcise my system and lead me back to histories and polemics. It didn’t, but here it is anyway, in no particular order, with excerpts for every mood.
1.Introspection, like so
He thinks, if you were born in Putney, you saw the river every day and imagined it widening out into the sea. Even if you had never seen the ocean you had a picture of it in your head, from what you had been told by foreign people who sometimes came upriver. You knew that one day you would go out into a world of marble pavements and peacocks, of hillsides buzzing with heat, the fragrance of fresh herbs rising around you as you walked. You planned for what your journeys would bring you: the touch of warm terracotta, the night sky of another climate, alien flowers, the stone-eyed gaze of many people’s saints. But if you were born in Aslockton, in flat fields under a wide sky, you might just be able to imagine Cambridge: no further.
2. Stage Setting and Character Building
He looks around the room. That’s where Lord Chancellor More sat. On his left, the hungry merchants. On his right, the new ambassador. There, Humphrey Monmouth the heretic. There, Antonio Bonvisi. Here, Thomas Cromwell. And there are ghostly places set, for the Duke of Suffolk, large and bland, for Norfolk jangling his holy medals and shouting “By the Mass!”. There is a place set for the king and his doughty little queen, famished in this penitential season, her belly quaking inside the stout armor of her robes. There is a place set for Lady Anne, glancing around with her restless black eyes, eating nothing, missing nothing, tugging at the pearls around her little neck. There is a place for William Tyndale and another for the Pope; Clement looks at the candied quinces, too coarsely cut, and his Medici lip curls. And there sits Brother Martin Luther, greasy and fat: glowering at them all, and spitting out his fish-bones.
You have to admire her [Anne Boleyn]; her measured exactness, her restraint. She uses her body like a soldier, conserving its resources; like one of the masters in the anatomy school in Padua, she divides it up and names every part, this my thigh, this my breast, this my tongue.
witty or profound
Thomas Wyatt and Cromwell
‘But that is Anne’s tactic, you see, she says yes, yes, yes and then she says no.’.
‘Listen. This is my view of the case. Anne does not concern herself with her wedding night because there is no cause for concern. He wants to say, because Anne is not a carnal being, she is a calculating being, with a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes. ‘I believe any woman who can say no to King of England and keep on saying it, has the wit to say no to any number of men, including you, including Harry Percy, including anyone else she may choose to torment for her own sport while she is arranging her career in the way it suits her. So I think, yes, you’ve been made into a fool, but not quite in the way you thought.’
…. ‘But he will prove jealous once they’re married’
‘As they will be? Married?’
‘I am working hard with Parliament, believe me, and I think I can break the bishops. And after that, God knows… Thomas More says that in the reign of king John when England was placed under an interdict by the Pope, the cattle didn’t breed, the corn ceased to ripen, the grass stopped growing and birds fell out of the air. But if that starts to happen,’ he smiles, ‘I’m sure we can reverse our policy’
Wyatt says, Anne has asked me: ‘Cromwell, what does he really believe?’
‘So you have conversations? And about me? Not just yes, yes, yes, no? I’m flattered. ‘
Cromwell and Thomas More
More’s face, smiling, is a mask of malice. ‘I would not be such a juggler’ he says softly. ‘I would not treat the Lord my God to such a puppet show, let alone the faithful of England. You say you have the majority. I say I have it. You say Parliament is behind you, and I say all the angels and the saints are behind me, and all the company of Christian dead, for as many generations as there been since the church of Christ was founded, one body, undivided-’
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake!’ he says. ‘A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church has liked nothing more than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up, and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will have only the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don’t try to make this simple.‘
Final conversation, before More’s trial
[Cromwell] ‘I am glad I am not like you.’
[More] ‘Undoubtedly. Or you would be sitting here.’
‘ I mean, my mind fixed on the next world. I realise you see no prospect of improving this one’.
‘And you do?’
‘I once had every hope. The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under a glass. The spectacles of pain and disgrace I see around me, the ignorance, the unthinking vice, the poverty and the lack of hope, and oh, the rain- the rain that falls on England and rots the grain, puts out the light in a man’s eye and the light of learning too, for who can reason if Oxford is a giant puddle and Cambridge is washing away downstream, and who will enforce the laws if the judges are swimming for their lives? Last week the people were rioting in York. Why would they not, with wheat so scarce, and twice the price of last year? I must stir up the justices to make examples, I suppose, otherwise the whole of the north will be out with bill-hooks and pikes, and who will they slaughter but one another? I truly believe I would be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if a lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free. If only that were true, Master More, you wouldn’t have to pray for me nearly as hard as you do.’
Anselma kneeling, creamily naked under her trailing nightgown of green damask, its sheen blackish in candlelight, kneeling before the small silver altarpiece…she prayed in her own language, now coaxing, now almost threatening, and she must have teased from her silver saints some flicker of grace, or perceived some deflection in their glinting rectitude, because she stood up and turned to him, saying, ‘I’m ready now’, tugging apart the silk ties of her gown so that he could take her breasts in his hands.
5.Pointless, wonderful rambling
In the forest, you may find yourself lost, without companions. You may come to a river which is not on a map. You may lose sight of your quarry and forget why you are there. You may meet a dwarf, or the living Christ, or an old enemy of yours; or a new enemy, one you did not know until you see his face appear between the rustling leaves, and see the hint of his dagger. You may find a woman asleep in a bower of leaves. For a moment, before you don’t recognize her, you will think she is someone you know.
6. Stories nested into stories
Edward Plantagenet, son of the duke of York, came as the first sign of spring: he was a native of Aries, the sign under which the whole world was made…. Dazzled, he stumbled through his kingship as through a mist. He was entirely the creature of astrologers, of holy men and fantasists. He didn’t marry as he should, for foreign advantage, but became enmeshed in a series of half-made, half-broken promises to an unknown number of women. One of them was a Talbot girl, Eleanor by name, and what was special about her? It was said she was descended- in the female line-from a woman who was a swan.
And why did he cast his affections finally on the widow of a Lancastrian knight? Was it because, as some people thought, her cold blond beauty raised his pulse? It was not exactly that, it was that she claimed descent from the serpent woman, Melusine, whom you may see in old parchments, winding her coils about the Tree of Knowledge and presiding over the Moon and Soon.
And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city’s uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks’ bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats and rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips to show their teethed; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed into their maws, all chewed up except for their helpless paddling feet, limestone or leaden, metalled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls, and roofs.
Beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marches of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape: there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and hollow trees, the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in the winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they are too are his countrymen, the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England and the suck the substance from the future.
7. Clever insults
(though here non fiction doesn’t disappoint quite as much)
Sir, you are a fat Fleming, and spread butter on your bread.
Sir, you are a roman pauper, may your offspring eat snails.
Cardinal Pole is like an old wife sitting by the fire, staring at Hob in the Corner and the Boneless Man. He has nothing but a little holy water in his veins, and they say he weeps copiously if his servant swats a fly.
The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being; you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be fighting in the forest, which his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas.
And, to conclude, a stab at originality.
Entirely Beloved Cromwell.
Wasn’t a thing he couldn’t sell,
up and down England’s dells,
Marriage, divorce, fine sea-shells.
Swirling, slipping, slithering
helas! into hell.