Two reviews by Kate Smyth

kate smythKate Smyth was born in 1989 and is from Galway. After graduating with First Class Honours in English and Psychology at NUIG in 2010, she completed the MA in Writing in NUIG in 2011. In 2012, she moved to Dublin and achieved her second First Class Honours on the M.Phil in Literatures of the Americas course at TrinityCollege. She has written book reviews, articles, and short fiction for NUIG’s SIN. She reviewed fiction for the radio show, ArtsWave, on Dublin South FM. Her short fiction has been published in Trinity’s Icarus Magazine and has made the Best Short Story shortlist at the Student Media Awards in 2011.

 

Two reviews by Kate Smyth

 

Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel

By Kate Smyth

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2009, Wolf Hall follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII. Mantel remoulds Cromwell, a man known for his violence and ruthlessness, into a caring, quick-witted, empathetic Renaissance man, despite looking “like a murderer”. This intensely detailed work of historical fiction sees Cromwell extract himself from a childhood of violent physical abuse at the hands of his alcoholic blacksmith father. Following the advice of his kindly sister Kat, who took the place of his mother after her early death, the young Cromwell escapes to France to become a soldier. Throughout the novel, the reader learns that Cromwell travelled across Europe, picking up skills as a cloth merchant, an accountant, and a lawyer, and learning French, Italian, Latin, and numerous other languages along the way. As Cardinal Wolsey’s assistant in 1527, stories about Cromwell’s origins are so mysterious and diverse that he is widely perceived as ominous and terrifying. Wolsey spreads wild stories about his protégé’s violent nature: “When he breaks the windows we just call in the glaziers and part with the cash. As for the procession of aggrieved young women … Poor creatures, I pay them off…” The cardinal’s witty inventiveness – together with Cromwell’s striking physical presence, incomparable memory, and apparent omnipotence – help him develop a persona which serves him well after the cardinal’s fall. Described as “a man of strong build, not tall”, Cromwell “is at home in the courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury”. His many talents and his blunt, though shrewd, manner allow him to become one of King Henry’s chief advisors.

Mantel creates a contrast between Cromwell’s public and private life. In the latter, he is a caring father and sympathetic master. Mantel’s predominantly refers to Cromwell as “he”, which sometimes causes confusion but ultimately draws the reader further into the action of the novel and provides a feeling of immediacy. Cromwell’s emotional side is explored in the wake of the sudden deaths of his wife and daughters, and of Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel depicts the tragedies as they would happen in real life, portraying the shock of sudden death by condensing the incidents into a few sentences. As Cromwell obtains more information, so does the reader. Cromwell’s love for Wolsey, for his wife and daughters, and for the people of his household endears him to the reader, as does his awkward relationship with his son Gregory and his naming of each of his dogs Bella (after the terrier he had as a boy in Putney).

Mantel expertly portrays the subtleties of these relationships and mirrors them against the complicated court politics. Cromwell is frank in his dealings with the king, but always with a plan in mind, always careful of Henry’s unpredictability. Henry, who is surrounded by snivelling courtiers and eternally accommodating lords, relishes Cromwell’s honesty and humour. As the novel progresses, Cromwell rises to power in concurrence with Anne Boleyn’s rise to the throne. When Cromwell is first summoned to Anne’s presence, she murmurs: “suddenly, everything is about you. The king does not cease to quote Master Cromwell”. Anne is portrayed as powerful, intelligent, and sly. She shows no fear: “if you walked up to her and said, you are to be boiled alive, she would probably shrug: c’est la vie”. Cromwell orchestrates her marriage to Henry in order to obtain an heir for the throne. Then, he thinks, “I can build my own prince”. The title of the book, and the final chapter, signify Anne’s eminent destruction and replacement by Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall, which will be facilitated by Cromwell.

Cromwell is set in contrast with the self-flagellating religious extremism of Sir Thomas More. Cromwell’s relationship with More is built on respect, competition, and distrust. Their views on the church and the powers of the king become increasingly divergent, and when More falls out of favour with Henry, Cromwell simultaneously brings about, and attempts to help More avoid, his execution. The complexity and contradictory of Cromwell’s role in More’s death is expertly portrayed by Mantel. More’s veiled vanity, and his view of himself as Christ-like, suggests Cromwell is the better man. While More mocks his wife, Cromwell treats his wife with respect while she is alive and misses her terribly after her death. Though Cromwell is perceived as being capable of extreme violence (and frightening enough to scare King Henry himself), he is at least partially unaware of this. Despite the disembowelling, burning, and decapitating of abbots, monks, and bishops who do not conform to Cromwell’s new version of England, Mantel continually depicts him as humane, intellectual, and family-orientated. Above all, Cromwell possesses relentless resourcefulness and ingenuity: “‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,’ says Thomas More, ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’”

Bring Up the Bodies (2012) by Hilary Mantel

By Kate Smyth

Mantel’s second novel in her trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell has less initial momentum than Wolf Hall (2009). Space is given to reminding the reader of characters’ personalities and summarising events of the first book. Because Mantel chooses to tell rather than show, the book is not as immediately impressive as its predecessor. However, that is not to say that Mantel has lost her expertise with language or her talent for storytelling. Early on, Cromwell is described through the remembered words of his deceased father, Walter: “‘my boy Thomas, give him a dirty look and he’ll gouge your eye out. Trip him, and he’ll cut off your leg. But if you don’t cut across him, he’s a very gentleman. And he’ll stand anybody a drink.’” This foreshadows the action of the novel. Cromwell engineers the fall of Queen Anne Boleyn, before she can destroy him. There is no doubt that Cromwell is a dangerous man, becoming more dangerous as his situation at Henry’s court becomes more precarious. He “quietens” Ireland “by hanging people. Not many: just the right ones. It’s an art, a necessary art”. At the court of King Henry VIII, he balances on the edge of a knife, and Anne Boleyn is nothing to him in comparison to his desire for self-preservation. He serves the king, but his own political aspirations compel him to unite with Anne’s enemies to bring her down. While he remains caring in some respects – towards his family and household – his deadly ruthlessness is revealed up close.

Henry’s new love, Jane Seymour, is an expertly crafted character. Quiet, shy, virginal; she is everything that Anne is not. But behind her silence is intelligence and discernment, and behind her demeanour of weakness is a woman who can resist the “honeyed words” of the king. Henry rejects Anne. Jane takes her place: “a space opens around her and for a moment she stands in the vacancy, like a dancer left behind when the line moves on.” It does not detract from the novel that the reader already knows how Anne (and indeed Jane) will meet her end. The brilliance lies in how Mantel unravels the story. In Bring Up the Bodies, as the king begins to speak of the possible illegitimacy of his second marriage, the reader can perceive a repetition of the situation with Katherine and imagine the very same murmured suggestions from the king to Cardinal Wolsey: “‘it seems to me I was somehow dishonestly led into this marriage.’” The reader can feel Cromwell’s exhaustion and uncertainty, though he regains control quickly and sides himself with the Seymours.

Cromwell knows that the king will one day turn on him, and all he can do is “hope the end is quick”. Always they are subjects to Henry’s capricious whims and moods, and never can they forget his power, for “it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You can tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws”. Following the lead of Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies won the Man Booker Prize again for Mantel in 2012. The forthcoming third novel in Mantel’s trilogy will, we can presume, continue to show how sharp King Henry’s – and Thomas Cromwell’s – claws can be.

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