Category Archives: Literature

Book review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

You just know when you’re reading the work of a genius.

The first two books in Dame Hilary Mantel‘s trilogy of historical novels set in the Tudor period both won the Man Booker Prize. Wolf Hall was published in April 2009. Bring Up the Bodies followed in May 2012. The final book of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, came out in March this year – it’s already been longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Having been enthralled back in 2015 by the six-part BBC TV production of Wolf Hall (which incorporated Bring Up the Bodies), I decided it was about time I went back to its source material …

Wolf Hall relates the rise of Thomas Cromwell from humble beginnings as the son of a (violent) blacksmith to becoming Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain – in other words, chief adviser and ‘fixer’ to Henry VIII. It’s quite some journey. Although told in the third person, it’s rather like an autobiography, in that we see events through Cromwell’s eyes as he becomes a vehicle, conveying a multi-dimensional picture of Tudor life and society in general and that of his own and other families – notably the royals – in particular.

We quickly pick up on Mantel’s literary device whereby the unexpected “he” pronoun almost invariably refers to Cromwell. Slightly jarring at first, this turns out to enhance the “fly-on-the-wall” effect. The quality of the descriptive prose is awe-inspiring: often it’s as though Cromwell (below) was carrying a video camera in the top pocket of his mink-lined robe. The use of the present tense adds immediacy and oftentimes dramatic effect. Whilst the author utilises established historical facts as a framework for her story, as a novelist she of course makes creative use of gaps in that record (a fascinating process which she described vividly in one of her 2017 Reith Lectures).

The idea of recounting complicated history through an imagined viewpoint of an actual historical personage throws up some intriguing philosophical questions. What is a true account of a historical event? Dates and places and documents provide the historian with a degree of certainty; but the subtleties of the event’s significance in the minds – and the lived lives – of those who were actually participating in that history, at the time, can only be guessed at. And it’s that dimension that the historical novelist inhabits and into which she leads us.

“The past is so close and yet irretrievable”, said Hilary Mantel in an edition of the BBC’s Book Club programme in October 2013. As she described it, it is so close when, say, we’re able to see and touch a dog’s footprints impressed into drying bricks laid on the floor of a real house owned by an important historical character; and yet irretrievable because we can never hear the voices or read the minds of characters whose history and fate we know only too well.

So, arguably the biggest question in all of this, which Mantel posed and answered in one of her Reith Lectures, is: “… what can historical fiction bring to the table? It doesn’t need to flatter. It can challenge and discomfit. If it’s done honestly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’, it says ‘Consider this’. It can sit alongside the work of historians – not offering an alternative truth, or even a supplementary truth, but offering insight”.

If you don’t know too much about the bloody and turbulent history of Henry VIII’s reign, this book is a real eye-opener. Thomas Cromwell has roles at every layer of society and rubs up against all the famous names in Henry’s court, such as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (above left) and Sir Thomas More (below right); he has his own family life, with its triumphs and tragedies, fitted in like an important sub-plot, but with great emotional sensitivity (I’ll avoid spoilers); and, as the history unfolds, his remit expands to take in the unpredictable king’s dealings with feisty English earls, corrupt and/or fanatical religious movers and shakers, potential wives and their scheming families, educational gurus, the intricate but questionable legal and diplomatic systems of Britain and Europe and, significantly, the growing influence of a nascent publishing industry. The often barbaric physical punishments meted out to offenders are described, sometimes in lurid detail; but, more to the point, Mantel forces us to think about the psychological repercussions on those navigating this dangerous landscape, and those fearing or actually facing execution. All this is set at the top of a society controlled by the massive levers of religious and regnal power.

Many of the dramatis personæ walk a tightrope between furthering their own interests and attracting the wrath or disapprobation of figures in positions of greater power, sometimes with horrifyingly fatal consequences. But of course they don’t always know what they are getting into. Mantel’s characters, including Cromwell, have human frailties. They don’t necessarily foresee the consequences of their actions and can attract big trouble merely by (for instance) uttering an unguarded remark, wearing the wrong garb, accidentally criticising the king or by being seen in the company of the wrong person. Personal relationships, motivations, hopes, fears, treachery, ambition, tenderness, God and the law … it’s all here. This is history in the making.

Having said that, Mantel underlines the truth that many people went to their deaths because they refused to deny their deeply-held religious beliefs. Whilst there was much schmoozing, posturing and politicking, religion and the promise of an afterlife held many minds in a vice-like grip, strong enough to withstand even the threat of torture or death by beheading or burning.

This is highly immersive stuff. Even though you, the reader, may know the fate of all the main characters, you still find yourself thinking, “Ah, that should help his case”, or “Oh dear, I don’t think she realises what Henry will think about that!” I must admit, I was often lulled into forgetting what we all know about the ultimate fates of people such as Anne Boleyn (left). At one point I even found myself thinking, “Oh my god, we’re going to meet Hans Holbein!”

If it sounds complex, it is. But it’s not difficult to follow, even though there are eleven Thomases, six Johns, seven Henrys, four Annes (including Anne Boleyn, of course) and four Marys! The five page, informative Cast of Characters and family trees at the front of the book are invaluable and referring to them is part of the fun. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the work is the way Mantel has such a great facility in being able to keep the story moving coherently on so many planes, working with all these characters, right from the lower ranks to the upper echelons. Moves on Mantel’s dazzling 3D chessboard of international politics are made by power players from France, the Low Countries, Spain and Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon (right), not to mention Wolsey’s (and ultimately Cromwell’s) battles with the Pope and the Church of Rome.

It’s interesting that Hilary Mantel studied law. She started as an undergraduate at the LSE, before transferring to the University of Sheffield and graduating as Bachelor of Jurisprudence in 1973. The novel is shot through with references to law, legal proceedings and the tracking down and clever use of evidence. Mantel portrays Cromwell’s rise to eminence as owing everything to his level-headed ability to deal with the practicalities of the capricious Henry’s finances, with all the knotty legal problems that attached thereto. Mantel takes all these matters in her stride, most notably the legalities around the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine and the subsequent break with Rome (though this first element of the trilogy doesn’t quite reach to the dissolution of the monasteries).

These are very substantial books. Wolf Hall is 650 pages long; Bring Up The Bodies (which I’m reading currently) runs to 484 pages; and The Mirror and the Light is a hefty 875 pages. That’s a total of a cool 2,009 pages. For me, they represent the fusing of professorial historical scholarship with a story-telling skillset that is probably unparalleled in the modern age.

“The novelist doesn’t spoil history for others”, adds Hilary Mantel in her Reith lecture. “She doesn’t trash her sources once she’s used them. The archive remains secure. The palaces and battlefields remain as if she had never passed through. Others can visit them, taking their own sensibility. She offers a version of the past. There can be others, and there will be. The novelist owns up to invention”.

Yes, there have been many other versions – in literature, online and on TV. But I find it impossible to imagine a more readable, gripping, thorough and convincing account of this segment of the Tudor period.

It could not have been better done.

 

 

Picture credits (all public domain)

Portrait – Thomas Cromwell: Thomas Cromwell, 1532–1533, Hans Holbein the Younger
Portrait – Thomas Wolsey: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530), Royal Minister, Archbishop of York, unknown painter
Portrait – Sir Thomas More: Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein (1497/1498–1543)
Portrait – Anne Boleyn: Anne Boleyn, late 16th-century copy of a lost original of c.1533–1536
Portrait – Katherine of Aragon: Catherine of Aragon, artist unknown, 18th century copy of a lost original work
Portrait – Henry VIII: Henry VIII of England, after Hans Holbein (1497/1498–1543); after 1537; cropped version of the full portrait, showing the “jags” (ie cuts) in the body and sleeves of the doublet, through which “puffs” of the shirt have been pulled through.

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Back to the Present as The Machine Stops

E.M. Forster, Alexandria, circa 1917

With all kinds of normal activity suspended around the world – at least for the time being – and citizens in their millions, if not billions, being confined to their homes by the pandemic, this machine we call society seems to be grinding to a halt.

E.M. Forster‘s short sci-fi story The Machine Stops was published in 1909 but in some ways seems spookily prescient of the current situation.

Forster (right) portrays a society in ongoing lockdown, each citizen confined to his or her own underground “cell”. The decor and furnishings are not exactly sumptuous, but okay if you like minimalism …

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus.

We are never told precisely why things have arrived at this juncture. It may have been the result of war, of an environmental disaster or indeed the aftermath of a plague. Environmental disaster seems the most likely explanation as we are told that “The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no life remains on it”.

It becomes clear that the two protagonists – Vashti and her son, Kuno – are in an isolation that is not of their own choosing. That’s not to say that, on the surface at least, they seem frustrated or depressed. Their every need (it appears) is catered for. They have all mod cons at their fingertips, including the automatic administration of medical treatments – and a kind of “home delivery” and other conveniences are just a button-press away.

There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends.

“[The] very first description of the internet in any detail was probably E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops from 1909”, writes Jaron Lanier1, “decades before computers existed: ‘People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.’ It might still be the most accurate description. How Forster did it remains a mystery”.

Things are definitely not as idyllic as they seem. In reality, Vashti is terrified of the idea of leaving her underground cell and experiencing the outside world. She has a horror of direct experience. Self-isolation is in operation big-time. Vashti is never happier than when giving lectures to large groups of followers, as long as it doesn’t mean meeting them in the flesh. She conducts her lectures using a Zoom-like communication system.

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.

Kuno has been to the outside world and wants to tell Vashti some awful truths about it. They can communicate via a Skype-like medium (bear in mind this was published in 1909), which Kuno uses to persuade Vashti to visit him on the other side of the planet, travelling in an “Air-Ship”. He needs desperately to talk to her face-to-face – even though it will involve her travelling half way around the world! Alison George points out why he feels that that is a price worth paying:

“A mother talks to her son by videoconference. She thinks it is ‘good enough’ to be able to communicate with him at all, whereas the son yearns to see her in person, recognising all the nuances that have been lost in the digitally mediated form of communication … Eventually, humans will be able to design technology offering substantive nature-like experiences. But my research tells me that, just as in Forster’s story, these will always be diminished compared with real nature. If this is true, then we should think of technological nature as a bonus, not as a substitute. Otherwise we might come to believe, as we have already to some degree, that ‘good enough’ is ‘good’.2

Forster knew nothing of TV or discussion programmes, radio or phone-ins, the internet or videoconferencing and VR concerts, of course. So it’s truly remarkable that the critique of technology in The Machine Stops has so many resonances with life today – I mean both the ‘old normal’ and our ‘new normal’. Maybe Vashti is right, that some kind of face-to-face communication is better than nothing. But to the extent that it becomes the norm to opt for virtual experiences, either from choice or force of circumstance, then maybe we become increasingly de-humanised and effectively part of Forster’s Machine.

During the visit, Kuno tells her that he is threatened with homelessness for daring to escape to the outside, without a permit. He fears telling her through the Machine, in case he is found out and reported to the Central Committee. Homelessness would mean death. He had emerged into Wessex by climbing up a ventilation shaft with his respirator. What he sees on the surface inspires and terrifies him as the story develops to its gripping conclusion and it becomes apparent that the machine is faltering, breaking down in ways that even the Mending Apparatus can’t handle.

There are many possible readings of the story. Is it a political allegory, Vashti standing for a passive member of the underclass, her son Kuno a rebel, kicking against an authoritarian regime? Is it primarily a call for individuals to think for themselves? Is it, perhaps, a warning that our precious environment will be destroyed if we don’t nurture it and care for it? Or does it seek to show that over-reliance on technology will lead to catastrophe? I’d venture to suggest that it could even be read as a struggle between our deepest thoughts and the need to conform – Id versus Ego, etc.

Forster’s own explanation seems to have been that technology was becoming a malevolent controlling force. The implication is that it would eventually take over completely. With this thought, perhaps he even foreshadows the concept of the technological singularity.

In Science As Nightmare: The Machine Stops, Silvana Caporaletti writes: “‘The Machine Stops’ basically expresses the same ethical and social preoccupations that inform all the other works of Forster, who repeatedly denounces the dangers of a materialistic ethos and of a general conformism imposed by rigid social conventions, exposing the spiritual barrenness and the emotional impoverishment generated by the repression of diversity, spontaneity and creativity”.3

Is Covid-19, then, just the latest symptom of a wider disease that is slowly engulfing humanity? Forster covered a lot of ground in this short tale, inviting us to consider whether growing authoritarianism, man-made environmental degradation, the de-humanising effect of an over-reliance on technology, artificial insemination, rampant materialism, moral and ethical decline and dumbing-down in many spheres are the defining characteristics of what we cheerfully call civilisation.

Or was Forster, writing about technology and one-party politics before two world wars, envisioning only the threats that technology posed, unaware of its potential abilities to combat the often deadly forces of Nature?

What wouldn’t we give for a return to the familiar, boring, predictable, comparatively carefree lifestyles, that most of us have grown up with? I’ve no doubt Forster would ask us to think twice about that. Perhaps we should listen to the words of some of those who have recovered from this horrendous disease and emerged like Kuno to see the world as it really is?

Advanced thinkers, like Vashti, had always held it foolish to visit the surface of the earth. Air-ships might be necessary, but what was the good of going out for mere curiosity and crawling along for a mile or two in a terrestrial motor? The habit was vulgar and perhaps faintly improper: it was unproductive of ideas, and had no connection with the habits that really mattered. So respirators were abolished, and with them, of course, the terrestrial motors, and except for a few lecturers, who complained that they were debarred access to their subject-matter, the development was accepted quietly. Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote.

 

1 Jaron Lanier, The suburb that changed the world, New Statesman 140, no. 5066 (August 15th, 2011), np.
2 Peter Kahn in Through a window, darkly …, Alison George, New Scientist 210, no. 2815 (June 4th, 2011), pp 32-33.
3 Silvana Caporaletti, Science as Nightmare: ‘The Machine Stops’ by E. M. Forster, Utopian Studies 8 (1997), no. 2: p 32.

Recommended online reading

Martyn Berry, Escape from the clutches of the Machine, New Scientist, 25th February, 1995


Image credit: plaque – Simon Harriyott from Uckfield, England / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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