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Wolf Hall - The Ex-Communicator

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August 10th, 2009


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02:26 pm - Wolf Hall
I'm reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which is being tipped for the Booker. It's an historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, which takes a precisely opposing world-view to Robert Bolt's 'A Man for All Seasons'. More is a mystical torturer, Cromwell is a modern man: sceptical, humane and robust and opposed to clericism. I think there's a modern tendency to portray the Reformation in England as an unnecessary destruction, but in fact the mediaeval way could not endure - and didn't in any part of Europe - and Cromwell is at the outer edge of this motion into the future. At the same time he doesn't have that sort of twee prescience you get in some historical fiction 'One day, sire, London may house a million inhabitants!' 'Impossible Cromwell!'

I find her portrayal of Tudor London to be convincing and vivid. Stories set in a different world - whether historical, fantasy or SF - must tread this balance of making the people in the other world people like us, but not people 'like us'. They aren't modern people thinking 'Urine in the streets? WTF?' but neither are they Merrie Olde English. Particularly in this historical drama which is driven by scepticism about current society and religion, but not the scepticism of people who know what comes next.

It's almost impossible to read some old style historical fiction because the cod 'period language' is so annoying 'God's blood sirrah, whence camest thou hence?' or some such gubbins. Mantel's language has virtually none of this, to the extent the language definitely isn't authentic - but I think she would say she was updating speech to nearest modern equivalence. Once or twice (I think perhaps once in what I have read so far) I winced because I thought she'd gone over too far into modern idiom.

So, I think it's a strongly-written historical novel, written from a good understanding of the period, about interesting people at a crucial time in the birth of modern Britain. I think it takes an unfashionable secular-humanist anti-aristocratic stance, which I like. Compared to The Little Stranger it is more realistic, more rooted in a story model where things definitely happen, and a plot unfolds. The cleverness is about clever ideas, rather than a meta-story. So, I probably would vote for Little Stranger, but I'm reading this with great enjoyment.

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Comments:


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From:immortalradical
Date:August 10th, 2009 09:59 pm (UTC)
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This has been on my shelf for a few months, and I picked it off last night. Really excited to get stuck in, and your post only encourages me. Huzzah!
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From:communicator
Date:August 11th, 2009 05:48 am (UTC)
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I don't know whether Cromwell was quite as likeable as she portrays him, but he is likeable, and it's pleasant to spend time in his head. He reminds me of people like Montaigne or Hazlitt - you feel they are modern people living in history.
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From:dfordoom
Date:August 11th, 2009 03:45 am (UTC)
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I winced because I thought she'd gone over too far into modern idiom.

I find that excessive modernising of language far more off-putting than cod period language. I like historical fiction, but that's one of the reasons I've given up reading it.
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From:communicator
Date:August 11th, 2009 05:57 am (UTC)
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Thee and ye are turned to you throughout, and so on. I sometimes think I ought to quote a passage in these pocket reviews, because I think that can give people an idea right away wether it's in a register they can or can't stand. I think there's one example that struck me as over-modernised. I've got the book here but I can't find that dialogue.

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From:tehomet
Date:August 12th, 2009 09:24 am (UTC)
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Cromwell humane?

I would be interested to see how the novel's author handles Cromwell's treatment of Drogheda.
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From:communicator
Date:August 12th, 2009 09:26 am (UTC)
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I think the seige of Drogheda was Oliver Comwell, this is Thomas Cromwell. Who actually was a distant relative.
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From:tehomet
Date:August 12th, 2009 09:30 am (UTC)
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My mistake. The Henry the Eighth Cromwell, not the Charles the First Cromwell!

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