I am somewhat loathe to recommend Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy since I know that, fundamentally, it will not be everyone’s cup of mead.
To start, these are big books. Wolf Hall clocks in at 559 pages, Bring up the Bodies 434, and the just-released conclusion, The Mirror and the Light, an easy, breezy 764 pages on Bible-thin paper. However, the global pandemic keeping many of us indoors argues for a serious reading project.
Furthermore, not everyone cares for historical novels, particularly when they are tales of political and religious intrigue centered upon one of Henry VIII’s mid-reign advisors, rather than, say, time traveling bodice-rippers with kilts. Cromwell is, let’s face it, not going to appeal to every reader.
But I love these books. To start, I find the historical stories we tell and retell fascinating, particularly the Caesar/Cleopatra/Antony triad and the whole reign of Henry VIII, from unplanned ascension to Katherine Parr. What does it say about us as a culture that in the 1960s we represented Cleopatra as a self-assured, sexy, badass and that by the early 2000s Rome she’s deeply aware of her limited choices before becoming a love-sick and drug-addicted trash-baby? Similarly, Anne Boleyn used to be a savvy political player who overplayed her hand but more recent depictions have rendered her a heartless monster, including in Mantel’s series. Similarly to retellings of myths and fairy tales, these retellings of well-trod history offer a political or ideological corrective to the standard narrative. But they aim to expand our understanding of “what really happened,” showing history and memory as a constant telling and retelling, assessing and reassessing, in order to understand ourselves.
And I love Cromwell as a character. He played and—#spoileralert— lost the game of thrones at one of the most fascinating times in English and European history. Arguably, Henry VIII’s petulant horniness combined with Anne Boleyn’s ambition did more to put cracks in the foundation of the Catholic dominance (and thereby advance Protestantism) than Martin Luther himself. Without that break, we have no Puritans, no Baptists, no Evangelicals and, by extension, no Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses either.
Henry fancied himself an modern, benevolent, and spiritual leader, overseer of the kind of court where a commoner like Cromwell could prove his worth and rise to be Henry’s right hand man. In actuality, he was a capricious man-child endowed with phenomenal power and zero self-reflection. Cromwell walked a tightrope to advance not only his own interests but also the new version of Christianity he believed in.
So if you, too, enjoy non-flashy, intellectual-but-pragmatic characters working among royal intrigue, political maneuvering, religious upheaval, a bevy of dead or displaced queens, and his own care for faith and family, the “Wolf Hall” trilogy merits your time and attention. Such books can also function as escapism, a world and culture so long ago they feel like fantasy worlds, or allegorical realism, where politics and religion grapple for dominance and regular people suffer the consequences.
Last, the writing rocks. This line from the end of Bring Up the Bodies during the execution of Anne sticks in my head like an ooey, gooey stain: “The body exsanguinated and collapsed in a puddle of gore.” (shiver.) I started The Mirror and the Light this week and, I will say, it’s very nice to be back in Cromwell’s world. This volume picks up right where “Bodies” leaves off, right after the execution. A tired Cromwell, sniping with partisans, thinks, “Cromwell, what are you doing? Usually he is the soul of courtesy. But if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?” Indeed.
And a few notions, because these are complicated times.
- Nerdette has been putting out a staying-at-home, sheltering-in-place podcast straight from the floor of host Greta Johnson’s closet. The most recent episode focuses on book recommendations, as does this week’s episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
- Yesterday I just needed a break, you know? So I laid in my bed and revisited the 2002 horror film The Ring, now streaming on Netflix. It’s a really good horror movie, but also either a great or terrible film for now since it’s all about choosing to preserve your/your loved one’s lives at the expense of others.
- Also yesterday, my very dear friend Rachel—knowing I was having a hard couple of days—showed up outside my house with a lovely message written on a whiteboard for me. It warmed my heart personally and also reminded me that we can find unique ways to connect with and support each other.
- Last, this weekend is all about baking projects, starting with this Baklava Babka from Smitten Kitchen. Wish me luck!
What are you reading, watching, listening to, cooking, making, or otherwise doing to stay engaged and grounded right now?
Updated. A false start required me to get advice from both my Mom and Blackberry Eater but it came right in the end!