Friday, December 10, 2010

Knights in White Satin

Isn’t it great when you discover a book that you want to recommend to everyone you meet? That’s what I feel about Wolf Hall, a novel by Hilary Mantel that won the 2009 Mann Booker in the UK. Set in the reign of Henry VIII (he of the six wives and the English Reformation), it is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s powerful adviser. In most accounts of the period, Cromwell is depicted as a scheming villain who brought about the execution of Thomas More when More wouldn’t support Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. (See the movie A Man for all Seasons starring Paul Schofield as More, Robert Shaw as Henry VIII, and Leo McKern as Cromwell.) Mantel’s is a much more sympathetic portrait of Cromwell, a self-made man, born the son of a blacksmith, and shows how he slowly became indispensable to the King and how his allegiance to Henry slowly began to turn him into a over-zealous enforcer of the King’s new role as head of a brand new Anglican church.

I admire how Mantel draws you into the everydayness of the Tudor world, with its smells and sounds. The interactions between her characters are as realistic and matter-of-fact as any we in the 21st century have with each other today. And her use of language is perfect – clean, spare lines of narrative with the occasional bloom of lushness. I find so many modern novels over-written to the extent that I want to take a machete and hack back the excess. Not Mantel. She gives us one unforgettable image – “Rubies cluster on [Henry’s] knuckles like bubbles of blood” – and then gets on with the story.

And not for a second does Mantel let herself be seduced by a fake glamour that many writers attach to the past. Here is her description of the procession bringing Henry’s new queen, Anne Boleyn, to Westminster for her coronation.
“The judges in scarlet follow, the Knights of the Bath in blue-violet of antique cut, then the bishops, Lord Chancellor Audley and his retinue, the great lords in crimson velvet. Sixteen knights carry Anne in a white litter hung with silver bells which ring at each step, at each breath; the queen is in white, her body shimmering in its strange skin, her face held in a conscious solemn smile, her hair loose beneath a circle of gems. After her, ladies on palfreys trapped with white velvet; and ancient dowagers in their chariots, their faces acidulated.”
Note how the prettiness of the word “palfreys” is swiftly followed – like a slap – by the “acidulated” expressions on the faces of the dowagers.

I am in awe.


  1. Not sure if I'll read 'Wolf Hall' ... I may simply wait for the 'movie' ..... a bit like that great Hollywood creation - 'A Man For All Seasons' ...... eat yer heart out Robert Bolt!

  2. Spoken like a true English teacher! You're quite right, Neil, I should have said it was a play from which a movie was subsequently made... My bad!

  3. I wonder ... have you any idea what an English teacher's reaction is to 'My bad'? Want to guess?!!! Clearly you should spend more time back in Scotland ......