Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

81fKXcKlJMLWolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, Copyright 2009.  Fourth Estate 2010

I’ve come to this book very late! Despite being a connoisseur of Tudor novels it has taken me a long time to read Wolf Hall. By winning the Man Booker prize and being set in a period I am fascinated with I was almost afraid to read it.

Thomas Cromwell is a rather unlikely hero, being both hated in his time and coming off rather unsympathetically in the various fictional adaptations he has connived through. As lawyer and chief minister to Henry VIII he is best known as aiding the rise and downfall of Anne Boleyn and the reformation of the English church. In Wolf Hall we see Thomas Cromwell, a boy from a violent home in Putney, rising up to take a starring role in court through a formidable intelligence and a face “like a murderer.”

The first 100 pages were intriguing but slow work for me. I found Mantel’s excessive use of “He” hard to get used to. The last 500 had me with my face glued to the pages. Despite seeing these particular events in about five Philippa Gregory books, a tv show (The Tudors), a play at The Globe (Anne Boleyn), primary school history and a history book by Antonia Frasier, it all felt new and exciting to me. The moment it was revealed why the novel is called Wolf Hall sent chills down my spine.

I love the detail; how Cromwell thinks like a lawyer (when he hears gossip he thinks Witnesses? Dates?), like a silk merchant, like a street brawler. The way that the Cardinal and Norfolk and the King look at him from tolerant bemusement to horror and disgust like – How did this boy from Putney manage to raise himself to our level? Where did he come from? what is he?

Cardinal Wolsey especially is stamped across this book and I particularly like the relationship between he and Cromwell. The playful way he asks Cromwell to price everything he wears.

He is about to say, the cardinal taught me everything, but Chapuys talks over him. “When the cardinal came to a closed door he would flatter it- oh beautiful yielding door! Then he would try tricking it open. And you are just the same, just the same.” He pours himself some of the duke’s present. “But in the last resort you just kick it in.”

Mantel made me care about Cromwell’s houshold- the sisters, wives, nephews. The usual stars of history, those at court, circle around in a wider sphere. By putting “the king” at a distance and placing emphasis more on his subordinates Mantel makes the past seem more immediate and relatable. Above all she made me love Cromwell himself. He is a fascinating character, not only intelligent and ruthless but also full of compassion. I can’t wait to see what he will do in Bring Up the Bodies, despite knowing how it will all end I badly want to see the journey Mantel will take us to get there.

 

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Audiobook. Pan Macmillan Publishers. 2013. Read by Morven Christie.

As soon as I read the blurb for this book I had to read it. The story is set in northern Iceland in 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the murder of two men. She is sent to the home of district office Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters to await the execution of her sentence.

The family are horrified to have a convicted murderer in their house and at first the only person to attempt to converse with Agnes is a young assistant priest, Tóti, who has been assigned to help Agnes repent her crimes before her execution.

This is an incredibly beautiful and dark story written in gorgeous prose. Australian author, Hannah Kent writes with haunting clarity of a land iced over with harsh winters and rich with literary sagas. I’m so glad I decided to listen to the audiobook as I cannot imagine a better narrator for this book than Morven Christie. Her voice is as cool and soothing as a glass of water and matches these bleak yet lovely lines perfectly.

“Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there…”

The story unfolds in layers as we see the same crime from a thousand different angles. We hear interpretations, guesses, pieces from the trial, gossip and we read the official letters as the execution approaches but what actually happened on the night Agnes committed a brutal murder? We start to see she is not only being punished for her crime but also for being a woman who is too clever and doesn’t care to hide it.

I have reviewed books on here that show the dark side of human nature. Well this shows the ugly side of the human psyche. What at first seems romantic, shows itself to be tragic and sordid. What seems villainous is small mindedness, greed and violence for the sake of violence. The questions Christie leaves us asking is; what is the difference between the truth and the perceived truth and how much can we really know another person?

Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer

IMG_0020Naxos Audiobooks. Narrated by Laura Paton. 2014

This is the most entertaining Georgette Heyer book I have read (or listened to) since These Old Shades.

The story opens with the dowager Lady Maplethorpe summoning her nephew, Mr. Ravenscar, to her with the dreadful news that his young cousin Lord Maplethorpe  has just announced his engagement to a young lady who works in a gaming hall. His attempt to buy the lovely Deborah off, who runs the gaming house with her aunt, doesn’t go well and a bitter tug of war over Lord Maplethorpe starts between them.

At first I thought I’ve seen this before. They’ll quarrel and fall in love, The End. Actually the argument turns into a stone cold battle that ends up encompassing bills, the mortgage on the house and debtors prison. We get halfway through the novel and the characters are still ruthless in their campaign to humiliate and tear down the other with no hint of warmth. It was a very satisfying relationship to watch grow.

Deborah, being one of the few Heyer heroines who actually has a job and a traditionally male one at that, is pragmatic, competitive and hot tempered. The whole story verges on the comical but underneath is her desire to be able to commit formal violence against an enemy, also traditionally a male activity, is woven throughout the book.

“Oh if I were a man to be able to call him out and run him through and through and through.
Lady Bellingham, who appeared quite shattered, said feebly that you could not run a man through three times.

“At least I don’t think so,” she added, “of course I never was present at a duel but there are always seconds, you know, and they would be bound to stop you.”
“Nobody would stop me!” declared Miss Grantham  bloodthirstily. “I would like to carve him into mincemeat .”

This wasn’t quite the sugary confection I was expecting  (being well acquainted with Georgette Heyer) but more like a bright cup of tea and is one of the most entertaining historical romances I have read. There is still the froth of declarations of love and lashings of lace (this is Heyer after all) but the ruthless battle of wits that makes the heart of the story kept me hooked for hours.

 

 

 

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

summer-queen-uk-2I was craving an easier read after the last book so I picked up The Summer Queen from my library. It is the first of a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages. All I knew about her, despite her infamous reputation, was the story of when she offered her husband’s mistress, Rosamund, a choice between death by dagger or death by poison. I don’t know yet whether this is true or not.

The story opens with 13 year old Eleanor and her marriage to Prince Louis of France after her father dies in 1137. This book focuses mostly on the result of that marriage, Eleanor’s role as Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of France and the long journey of the Crusades.  Chadwick doesn’t descend to the levels of Islamaphobia and racism that Lainez did but I am getting tired of the trappings of Orientalism that come from involving the crusades and perhaps should have read up on Eleanor before I started this book.

I got off onto a bad start with this book because I found Chadwick’s decision to name her protagonist “Alienor” to respect a historical figure a bit affected. If this were a historical biography I would have had more patience but it is after all a work of fiction and I found the decision extremely unnecessary. However I soon got caught up in the plot and raced through this book in three days. I found the language enjoyable and sensory, Chadwick has the talent of immersing the reader deep in the past, but occasionly the writing is verging on the overblown.

Alienor straightened in the saddle. The realisation that she was Duchess of Aquitaine was stirring within her, like a dragon awakening and stretching sleek, sinuous muscles. “I do not fear them,” she said.

The breakdown of the marriage between Eleanor and Louis was cleverly and emotively done and I found myself emotionally immersed in it. It signals not just court intrigue, scandal and personal danger to Eleanor but the shifting of a dynasty. I will certainly be reading the next book, The Winter Crown, which focuses on the Plantagenet’s in England and the children Eleanor has there, a family tree I am more familiar with- admittedly largely because of the Disney film Robin Hood.

The Summer Queen took hold of my imagination, kept me turning the pages and was a wonderful introduction to Eleanor of Aquitaine but it didn’t quite manage to capture my heart.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

9780857207586There is a whole shelf of my bookshelf full of Philippa Gregory books. I’ve been reading them since I first picked up The Other Boleyn Girl over a decade ago. That said, I haven’t been too enthusiastic about her latest books and couldn’t even remember what most of them were about after just finishing them. They all seemed to run in together with characters and expressions I had read before.

I am happy to say that (despite the glaring historical inaccuracy on the first page that even I couldn’t overlook) this was a very enjoyable read. It was not the kind of book I’d re-read over and over again but it kept me hooked for two days. I read it well into the night and found it hard to put down.

The King’s Curse is part of The Cousins War series but I think it’s very much a transitional book between the Plantagenet and Tudor works. It tells the story of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and the struggles she faces as one of the last Plantagenet heirs in a rising Tudor dynasty. At the story’s opening her cousin Elizabeth of York is married to Henry VII, her little brother, the White Rose, has been marched out of the tower to his execution to stop “half of England turning out just for that haunting flicker of white embroidery” and she has been married off into obscurity to Sir Richard Pole:

“I don’t dare shrug him off. He is my husband, I dare not offend him. He is my only refuge. I am buried in him, my name hidden in his. I am cut off from my title as sharply as if my name had been beheaded and rolled away into a basket.”

This book covers the same ground as A Constant Princess and The Other Boleyn Girl and yet I was gripped from start to finish. By using Margaret Pole we see the Tudor Court from an entirely different perspective; as something new, and volatile even compared to the War of the Roses. Gregory still has the remarkable talent of bringing events and people into vivid colour. While this book isn’t one of her greats it revived my enthusiasm for her work and she still sits at the top as my favourite historical novelist.