Today’s recommendations are admittedly an acquired taste: Mantel’s court dramas and Marmite. Both quintessentially English and usually firmly categorised as love/hate – though Mantel is likely far more admired outside the UK.
Everybody is talking about the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell -trilogy that dropped just before most of Europe went into lockdown, so I will spare you some of the introduction. In short, Cromwell was Henry VIII’s original spin doctor and fixer. Henry VIII is mainly known for collecting wives (fair enough – he was 18 years when he was crowned and there was no Netflix back then) and England was in the throes of the second plague pandemic during his reign. There’s thus an unexpectedly timely aspect that also reads as a manual of tried and tested pandemic behaviour (Cromwell spent his isolation reading Machiavelli “he had been confined to the house, so as not to take fever into the city”).
Generally speaking I’m not a huge fan of historical novels. There’s only so much renaissance shenanigans of swooning and ripping of bodices a 21st Century person can take. Court dramas tend to be annoyingly populated by all kinds of low-ranking court jesters who still all need to be named for whatever reason. Has anyone ever watched Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I -movie trilogy without being absolutely baffled/frustrated at some point about which is which bearded and important Lord?
I’ve made it to the end of the second part of the trilogy, and all kudos to Mantel for carrying about a billion characters throughout the saga. There’s a list of characters in the beginning of each book and there’s a high risk of everything ending very confusingly, given that most people were called either Henry or Mary, but somehow Mantel manages with the unmanageable, although I did have to make repeated checks to the catalog to check I have the right Henry in bed with the right Mary at any given time.
The absolutely fastest way to find out what happened during the reign of Henry VIII is of course to consult Wikipedia, but I would recommend reading Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & The Light. All volumes are available as audio books and the physical books have the combined volume of about 2100 pages.
In all honesty, had it not been for the coincidence of the publication of the third volume and the fact that the trilogy also reads as history of pandemic in Europe, I probably would have skipped this exercise. I’m very glad I didn’t. The story is absolutely absorbing, and there’s none of the usual tackiness of historical novels. The first two books have won the many literary prizes of the English-speaking world for a reason.
The use of English language is thoroughly fantastic, and surprisingly funny. I look forward to the arrival of autumn just to be able to use the sentence “By the tits of Holy Agnes, it’s freezing!”
If you are considering in immersing yourself in the trilogy, a tip: wait until you get past the approximately first 50 pages of Wolf Hall. The plot properly takes off from there.
While the second volume is mainly about the life, and, as it happened, death of Anne Boleyn (Wife 2) and the more traditional court intrigues, it is astonishing to realise how nothing really changes in politics and power games.
What also seems not to have changed is how the women in royal families are perceived in public – a topic that Mantel has been vocal about. She has spoken how racism was a factor in the criticism, or “invective” against Meghan Markle. She is also famous for her lecture at the British Museum, from which the excerpt
“Kate Middleton appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished”.
“These days, she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth“
was taken from the context and splashed around the press in 2013, branding Mantel venomous and bitter. But is she really so far off the mark? While it is true that European monarchies kindly allow girls to ascend the throne these days, the very point of any crown prince or -princess is to produce an heir, a duty exclusively befalling on the woman. What is left of a royal family if there’s no family?
In Henry VIII’s court a failure to produce an heir and a spare cost many a queen their life. Any woman affiliated with the King was under an insane scrutiny for pregnancy, and Henry’s desperation for a son drove him to consult all sorts of prophetesses and astronomers who were later burned as witches or heretics.
Women as human beings had no particular role in the 16th century political dealings, but their uteruses were literally priceless. The King’s advisers spent most of their waking hours either mapping out suitable international brides for the philandering Henry or figuring out the ovulation cycles and fertility of the more readily available ladies-in-waiting. They exasperate in the second volume how “God should have made women’s bellies transparent, and saved us the hope and fear”.
As a result of my getting carried away with Cromwell’s machinations, my screen time last week was down by 40%.
As for Marmite, I don’t have anything to defend myself. Love the stuff.
(If you must know, my last week’s rushed visit to Waterstones was not because I was running out of books.)