Monday, May 31, 2010
I have an embarrassing admission to make. I watch Showtime's soft-core soap opera "The Tudors." The costumes! The court intrigue! The sex! "The Tudors" has it all.
What "The Tudors" doesn't have, busy as it is with the hot and steamy, is phenomenal writing, whip-smart dialogue, a compelling hero, and a fresh take on 16th century English court. You have to read "Wolf Hall" for that.
"Wolf Hall" is Hilary Mantel's fictional account of life at King Henry VIII's court during the 1530s, as experienced by the book's hero, Thomas Cromwell.
I know what you're thinking: Really, Culture Lust? You're going to recommend a 530-page book about cold and dreary 16th century England at the start of summer? Really?
Really. Don't forget about what was going on then: royal divorces, affairs, a break with the Catholic Church, beheadings, disembowelments, war, the plague. This is why Henry VIII's reign endures in the imaginations of writers, filmmakers, and premium cable producers.
My favorite take on the period is now "Wolf Hall." The book won last year's prestigious Man Booker prize in Britain and the fiction award from the National Book Critics Circle.
"Wolf Hall" is told from the perspective of Cromwell, one of King Henry's most trusted advisors. Because Mantel rarely identifies Cromwell by name – referring to him only as "he" – the novel can be disorienting at first. Once you find your footing, in fascinating lock-step with Cromwell, the book moves with an efficiency that Cromwell himself would admire.
Cromwell is a true political operator and rarely given the hero treatment. Mantel draws a sharp character study here, resulting in a sympathetic, captivating portrait of the man who's usually depicted as the bad guy, as in Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons."
Born the son of a poor blacksmith, Cromwell rises to the King's inner circle (eventually controlling all administrative aspects of Henry's kingdom) by his street smarts, quick wit, and calculating political skills.
"Wolf Hall" is, in part, a treatise on how to brilliantly and strategically advance within an institution. Anyone trying to climb that corporate ladder could learn a thing or two from Mantel's Cromwell.
Early on, it was clear to me that I wanted to spend time with Cromwell. He's shrewd, but also generous and funny. At one point, Henry yells at Cromwell, "I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents." Mantel writes that Cromwell "can shape events, mold them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world."
Cromwell is a Renaissance man in the late Middle Ages, trying to drag the culture of court - and England – into modernity.
He speaks Latin, French and Italian fluently, fought in the French army, worked as a wool trader in Antwerp and as a banker in Florence, and served as the right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey, once Lord Chancellor to Henry.
Cromwell is so modern he believes the men and women of England should be able to read their Bible in English, unlike his adversary Sir Thomas More (who history remembers much more fondly than Mantel writes him), who burns men and women at the stake as heretics for such acts.
Compared to the spoiled lords and dukes at court, Cromwell's experience is rich, sordid, and worldly. He goes mum when asked about rumors he's sired children throughout the world and killed a man by pulling out his heart.
Cromwell muses: "It's wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, and desires."
Sir Thomas More, once Lord Chancellor and beloved by Henry, does not come off well in "Wolf Hall." He tortures heretics and keeps them as slaves in his own home. He's horrible to his wife, and often smug and cruel.
More is remembered for many things in history, but one tidbit disturbs me like no other. Every day, More wore a hairshirt under his robes as an act of devotion. An itchy shirt made of hair. Every day. Horrors!
More was eventually executed for treason because he wouldn't recognize Henry as the head of the Catholic Church (the means by which Henry's divorce was secured, freeing him up to marry Anne Boleyn). Mantel's More is not the man the Catholic Church remembers as a saint and martyr.
Some of the most enjoyable scenes in the book are the discussions between Cromwell and More, two brilliant men who see the world in completely opposite terms.
As Showtime's "The Tudors" ends its four-season run and summer arrives, it's the perfect time to pick up this elegant, page-turner for your beach bag.
Mantel has announced that she is already at work on a second, concluding novel about Cromwell, tentatively titled "The Mirror and the Light."