Today I’ve been reading more from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and I’m now almost at the halfway stage. At times I’m loving it and at times I’m thinking why, oh why is she writing this in the present tense? See, it’s getting to me – I’m not overly fond of books in the present tense. And why does she keep using ‘he’ and I’m not sure which ‘he’ she means? Sometimes it’s Thomas Cromwell, but it could be any number of other ‘he’s’ too. But on the whole she’s winning me over and I have to keep on reading. What a character this man Cromwell is, a man who Cardinal Wolsey describes as:
… rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom. (page 86)
Cromwell knows that
You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook … (page 60)
I didn’t expect Wolf Hall to be relevant to the current state of affairs and yet it’s about power, who holds the purse strings, who can command. People, then as now, want change, always hoping for something better. I read this as the present election campaign was in flow with the politicians’ slogans ‘Vote for Change’ and ‘Change that Works for You’. Just see what Geroge Cavendish thought in 1529
‘But what do they get by the change? ‘ Cavendish persists. ‘One dog sated with meat is replaced by a hungier dog who bites nearer the bone. Out goes the man grown fat with honour, and in comes a hungry and a lean man.’ (page 55)
Talking about elections, Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to be ‘elected’ was rather different from today’s methods. His constituency was Taunton which he held with the agreement of the king and the Duke of Norfolk because seats in the House of Commons were
… largely, in the gift of the lords; of lords, bishops, the king himself. A scanty handful of electors, if pressured from above, usually do as they’re told. (page 161)
Well, at least that is different these days.
Wolf Hall engages me on different levels – it’s historical fiction of period I used to know well and as I read it all comes back to me – Henry VIII’s wives and all that. It’s also made me think about writing styles and what I’m comfortable reading. It’s a dense book, one that you have to take your time reading and it helps if you know the history because nothing happens quickly in this book, which is full of description and lots of characters. I’m not finding a page-tuner but a fascinating study in particular of Thomas Cromwell.
Wolf Hall is a long book, and I need to vary my reading. I’m also at the beginning of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, very different from Wolf Hall and also listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Moving forward 400 years from Tudor England to Britain in the 20th century on the brink of war with Germany is quite a leap, but it still feels like historical fiction. The Very Thought of You begins with Anna’s evacuation from London in September 1939 to Ashton Park, a large Yorkshire estate. This is the calm before the storm.
It’s a very different style from Wolf Hall and I’m enjoying the contrast. So far, it has a warm, family feel about it, yet connected to world events with the parallel activity in Poland as Hitler invaded. The British ambassador in Warsaw, Sir Clifford Norton, watched the city burn and abandoned the embassy as the Nazis and the Soviets invaded.
I don’t envy the Orange Prize judges their task – how do you compare such different books?