Leaves look pale

It’s hard to close a book like Bring Up the Bodies and leave the lustre and terror of that Tudor world behind. It’s hard, too, not to want to read ahead. I know what happens afterwards – Henry marries three more wives; his three surviving children each take a turn on the throne; it’s Boleyn’s daughter that gives her name to the next age. But I want Hilary Mantel to tell it to me again. I want the rich, breathless pulse of her voice, the turn of the seasons in her hands. Alas there’s only one more book to come: her story ends when Cromwell’s does, so Henry and his heirs are left to their own devices.

I almost wish some copycat would take up the story, giving us Elizabeth’s court in the same fashion. The one thing I felt wanting in Mantel’s world was what happened sixty years later, when Elizabeth was old, and therefore what she couldn’t have written about without anachronism: the great flourishing of English letters at the turn of the sixteenth into the seventeenth century. What’s missing in Cromwell’s ambit is the intoxication of lyric, longing, complex verse. Wyatt and Surrey are well enough in their way, but they are to Sidney and Shakespeare what betamax is to the ipad. The Elizabethans, given in Mantel’s manner, would be a treat. 

Yet nothing in my experience leads me to expect success from attempts to fictionalise poetry. To wit: Shakespeare in Love. Or worse: Anonymous. I’d better content myself with poetry unfiltered through fiction’s sieve. So here’s a wintry sonnet from Shakespeare, number 97, which fits the season outside my window, and might as well stand for the desolation of leaving a lover as for finishing a good book.

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness every where!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widowed wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.

Tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings

I once took a class in watercolour painting. About the only thing I remember is that we learned the colour of shadows. The shadow of a green apple, for example, is not grey but blue; the shadow of an orange is violet, and so on. This strikes me as an apt image for the genius of Hilary Mantel: she can paint not only the things themselves but the colour of their shadows.

Her rendering of Tudor England, (anything but a still life), is deep and dense; not because she’s at pains to render every detail, but because she isn’t. Such is the vivacity of her recreation that when she writes “window” you picture lead-latticed casements without being told to. Glances through such windows are enough to suggest a totally different relationship to gardens, weather, herbs and crops. The materials of the Tudor world are very present: cold stone, embroidered silk, scented wood, air that’s damp, or clean, or plague-ridden. But the immaterial is equally present. Minds, spirits, consciences all straddling the break with Rome, the new gospel, the frailty of a divinely appointed king; it’s frightening how easily one acquiesces in the casual misogyny and debauchery of the court. Mantel’s characters, though necessarily fictive, bestride their world authentically. It’s the opposite of that strange quality that makes CGI animation never feel quite right, no matter how lifelike - figures look solid but seem weightless. Her figures, particularly her Cromwell, move in three dimensions, every movement fully weighted, every shadow faithfully coloured.

This, I think, is what sets her apart from the generality of historical fiction writers. Authenticity, far more than accuracy, is the real pull of successful historical fiction. It's fiction loosed in history, but not unmoored from truth. Fiction that kicks away the struts of accuracy without falling into error. This is what Shakespeare knew, when he shoved an actor onto the stage at the beginning of Henry V to deliver this prologue. It sounds like an apology for lack, but it's really a defense of the kind of imagination Mantel brings to her little kingdom.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i'the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.


I that knew what harbour'd in that head

Yesterday I bought Bring Up The Bodies - Hilary Mantel's sequel to her 2009 smash hit Wolf Hall - and so far it's just as unputdownable as the original. She continues the story of Thomas Cromwell's ascendancy in the court of Henry VIII, with the same wild energy and gorgeous embodiments. See James Wood's review of both novels for a much better overview than I can give here. This is more by way of an introduction to this weekend's poem.

When I was reading Wolf Hall, you might remember, I posted a poem by Thomas Wyatt, a minor character but (at the time) a major poet. The other major poet from the early sixteenth-century was Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who died in 1547 at the venerable age of 30. Wyatt and Surrey were both published in Tottel's Miscellany, an anthology important in collecting and shaping the poetic experience of the early English Renaissance. They were precursors to Sidney and Spenser, who in turn precursed Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson. This poem is Surrey's sonnet on the death of Wyatt - a touching tribute, and a fitting way to mark the lives of both. Fans of Midsummer Nights Dream should enjoy the reference to Pyramus and Thisbe in the final line.  

Divers thy death do diversely bemoan:
Some, that in presence of thy livelihed
Lurked, whose breasts envy with hate had swoln,
Yield Cæsar's tears upon Pompeius' head. 
Some, that watched with the murd'rer's knife,
With eager thirst to drink thy guiltless blood, 
Whose practice brake by happy end of life, 
With envious tears to hear thy fame so good.
But I, that knew what harbour'd in that head ;
What virtues rare were tempered in that breast ;
Honour the place that such a jewel bred, 
And kiss the ground whereas the corpse doth rest ; 
     With vapour'd eyes : from whence such streams availe,
     As Pyramus did on Thisbe's breast bewail. 

Historical Friction

Whenever I try to read historical fiction, the little man in my hair starts screaming “Wrong! Wrong! It’s all wrong! They wouldn’t have said that! They didn’t talk like that! That wouldn’t have happened!”

My sister-in-law, a historian, gave me Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker-winning Wolf Hall for Christmas. Reading this novel about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, I’m managing to keep the little man subdued while I enjoy, if not the language – which hardly tries for verisimilitude - at least the texture, the habits of thought, the smell and feel of Tudor London, which are admirably contrived. While their speech has to be read as rough translation (if only to placate the little man), you do feel as though you were bumping up against the real bodies of Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry, Anne Boleyn, their immense personalities. You feel the rich crackle and sizzle of the court, the ever-present threat of betrayal, arrest, horrible death. You also feel the certainties of church, prayer-book, rosary, relic; you feel them crumbling against the tidal push of protest coming from abroad. Sixteenth-century life and custom, rather than being simply documented, are woven dexterously into the fabric of the story. There is an immediacy about it which is more pleasing than accuracy. No doubt this is the point, pace little man, of historical fiction.