Category Archives: historical novels

Bringing History to Life Again

Three years ago I wrote a post called Bringing History to Life, about Hilary Mantel’s two masterpieces, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both Man Booker prizes. I fell in love with them three years ago, on a Christmas visit to family in the west, and I’ve recently re-read them. I love re-reading books that are so fine in texture, rich in description and characterisation, that create an imagined (in this case historical) world you can enter and inhabit for a time. This is the next best thing to the Tardis; perhaps better, because you are not embodied or materialised there, so you are safe, in this case from decapitation or the torture wrack, or Henry VIII’s wrath, or Anne Boleyn’s tantrums and scheming. Or, in my case, from the seductive power of Thomas Cromwell’s formidable intellect and his subtly charismatic ability to manage people and to direct the course of affairs at a high level, while seeming to serve those who have greater rank and power than him. Of course, we know, he came to a bloody end, like those Anne Boleyn and several of her admirers who are framed as her lovers had at his hands, when he was at the height of his influence in the court. Despite his machinations, we are able to forgive him because he is doing what Henry, his master, wants; his own integrity is somehow not corrupted by the fact that he is raising people to power then bringing them down when their star is eclipsed by Henry’s shifting desires and whims. So there is a knife edge morality in this book, which doesn’t judge, but allows  you to take sides as the wind shifts, and to understand why Cromwell acted as he did, even though you can’t necessarily understand or accept Henry’s motivation, or the way people are taken up, used, then discarded.

We have long awaited the promised third book in this historical saga. It seems that it is still coming: There will be great excitement when it is released.

For now, I can’t add much more to my previous post on the two books, except to say that they seem to grow in richness and texture with each re-read. I also love the BBC dramatisation, Wolf Hall. Inevitably, with two big books crammed into 8 episodes, it is much abbreviated; but the superb settings, filming, and scripting, and above all the star performance by Mark Rylance (I fell for him even more than his print version in the books), well supported by a wonderful cast, including Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Bolyn, make it a model of historical TV drama .


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A mixed bag: books I’ve read lately

Today I’m going to try something new: not a full post on a particular book, but brief reviews of books I’ve read in the past month. None of them, for me, warrant a full review. My list today is: Ross Poldark  by Winston Graham; My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; and Persuasion by Jane Austen (a re-read).   ross-poldarkRoss Poldark is the first novel in a huge family saga set in Cornwall in the 1780s, focusing on Ross Poldark and his wife Demelza. Winston Graham (whom I confess I’d never heard of until I started to watch the new BBC series) was the author of more than 40 novels, and the Poldark series is now in its third recreation as television drama. The central character, Ross, in the new BBC production, has been hailed as sexier than Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. I don’t disagree. But as for the book, he doesn’t stand out (no pun intended) as much as Demelza, the abused waif whom he rescues from a beating by her drunken father, takes on as a kitchen maid, and marries when she is of age. Love comes slowly for Ross; he is seduced by her, who adores and hero worships him, and he gradually realises that she is rough cut diamond, a feisty, loyal, loving, happy, winsome girl of superior intelligence and wit, who quickly blooms into a wild English rose, without losing any of her natural honesty and down-to-earthness. It is a true Pygmalion story, though Ross is not really the architect of her transformation. She transforms herself through her desire to be a worthy wife and partner for him, to be able to hold her own among the aristocracy of the community, and yet does not lose touch with her origins, a child of the earth. She makes mistakes, not least when she becomes a conspirator of the heart with Ross’s cousin Verity, a plain, hard-working young woman whom no-one expects to marry, but who falls in love with a sea captain with a dark past. Demelza’s part in bringing the lovers together splits the family apart and is the catalyst for Ross’s estrangement from Verity’s brother Francis, who happens to have married Ross’s first love, Elizabeth, while Ross was away fighting in the American Civil War. Around the ups and downs, jealousies and betrayals, loves and losses of the Poldark family is woven another story, that of the tin mines in Cornwall. It is hard times; many of the mines are abandoned, the price of tin has fallen, and Ross’s estate is derelict. Against all odds, he decides to resurrect one of the family mines. The trials and obstacles of this enterprise occupy a large part of the book, and I confess I found this story less interesting than the central romance. Ross has less affinity with his own class than with the working people, and of course his marriage puts him even more offside with his own relations and their circle. He shares what he has with his workers and their families, and protects them as much as he can from the bad treatment and the poverty they are subject to. So in many ways this book is in the genre of great 19th century novelists like Dickens, Zola and Balzac, who wrote realistic novels portraying individual lives framed by the struggle of the classes and the inhumanities and injustices of society. For me, the writing does not have the force and calibre of these novelists, it is more middle of the road, but nevertheless very readable, and the characters are vivid and convincing. I have ordered the next book in the Poldark series, titled Demelza, from the library.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is translated from Italian by Anna Goldstein (published in English in 2011). urlThis is a book I find hard to describe, and although it’s only about three weeks ago that I read it, I’m pushed to summarise the plot. The first and most interesting thing about this book is that the author has become a sensation on the international literary scene, because of the quality of the writing, but even more because the author has kept her anonymity. Beyond that she grew up in Naples, has lived for periods outside Naples, has a Classics degree, teaches and is a mother, she is unknown. My Brilliant Friend is the first of a trilogy. The narrator, Elena, recalls her Neapolitan childhood and school days in the 1950s; a time and place of ignorance, violence, gangs, cruelty and gossip. Elena admires and tries to emulate Lila, whom she meets in first grade. Lila is described as “that terrible, dazzling girl”, and everyone is afraid of her. Gradually they become friends; Elena does not lose her honesty and innate gentleness, and Lila does not modulate her fierce and uncompromising nature, but they are loyal to each other in a fashion, while Elena is secretly devoted to Lila, even obsessed with her. Lila is the more gifted of the two, but her family does not support her going on to high school, and she gives in and takes on the role of family helpmeet and worker in her father’s shoemaking business. She blossoms into a very beautiful young woman, and marries a local boy from a wealthy family at 16. Elena, on the other hand, is allowed to go on to high school with a scholarship, and what she misses in brilliance, she makes up for in discipline, and becomes a star pupil. That’s a rough outline of a complex book which is close to stream of consciousness in the way it is told, in that one scene melts into another and there is much reflection on the friendship and on her attractions to a particular boy who is at least as bright as she is and more radical in his thinking. But really, it is Lila she loves most, and Lila, like the radical boy, is beyond her reach. At best I can say this is an interesting and intriguing book but it didn’t grip me and make me want to see what happens after the end of the story. It gave me a window into an unfamiliar world, but I felt very much an outsider to it; perhaps this reflects how Elena felt, a misfit, longing to get outside the confines of this narrow world, trapped in it by her childhood, seeing education as her escape. Whereas Lila, the wild one, remains trapped. I will read the sequels. If you want to know more about Ferrante’s work, there is a comprehensive review in the New York Times.

Last but far from least is Jane Austen’s Persuasion. persuasion This book needs no introduction; it is perhaps the most read of Austen’s novels after Pride and Prejudice, and has been made into films. It was Austen’s last novel, completed a year before she died at the age of 41. Everyone knows that Austen remained a spinster, and it is tempting to see this story as wish fulfilment. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is the youngest of three daughters, and though possessed of superior ‘elegance of mind and sweetness of character’ was ‘nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way— she was only Anne.’  The intervention of a family friend prevents her from marrying the man she falls in love with at the age of 19, and for eight years she lives a lonely life, longing for what she has lost, and being a dutiful daughter and sister. When the novel starts, she is 27, a shadow of her former bloom and beauty. I’m sure most of you know the plot, so I won’t summarise it. I just want to say that for me, Anne is one of Austen’s strongest and most convincing heroines. When Anne’s former lover, Captain Wentworth, returns from years at sea with a fortune, he finds her much changed, and appears to be playing the field, looking for a likely wife. After many twists and turns, he overhears her talking to another captain, a mutual friend, about love and marriage. Re-reading this climactic scene, I realised that she is my favourite Austin heroine. She utters words which mark her for me as a proto-feminist. Trapped as she is in a hierarchical world where title and connections and money mean more than love and loyalty and kindness, she holds her own in a vigorous argument with Captain Harville ( a friend of Wentworth’s, who is sitting at a nearby table, ostensibly writing a letter). In a conversation about a mutual friend, a man who is fairly recently widowed and has fallen in love again, Anne maintains that women are more constant than men.

Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. … Men have had every advantage over us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything. … All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.

There is a rich context to this defence of woman’s constancy, both in past events and in the present scene. Captain Wentworth, the eavesdropper, the silent witness, finally acknowledges to himself that he has not stopped loving Anne, and that she is superior to any other woman he knows; that she is the very model of constancy and character that he seeks. The rest unfolds as it always done in Austen’s novels, with the marriage summarised in the final chapter; as she says, ‘Who can be in doubt of what followed?’


Filed under Classic literature, historical novels, romance and realism, romantic love

Books I wish I hadn’t read: Perfume by Patrick Suskind

perfume   Some of my friends raved about this book in the late 80s and 90s. When I scanned through the reviews of it on Goodreads, I found that most of them also rave about it. It’s a book I wish I hadn’t read. It won’t be added to my store of literary treasures. It is a story of an abominable man, born without a smell of his own and gifted with a super-human sense of smell. The first quality makes him less than human, ignored, abandoned as a baby, growing up by his own cunning and will to survive, without loving or being loved. The second quality makes him more than human, for he is gifted with the ability, honed over many years, to capture and recreate the essences of things and people. He uses this ability to disguise himself when convenient, and to pursue his lust for capturing essential fragrances, especially of young, beautiful, virginal girls. This ability pits him against the mass of humanity, in a time (the eighteenth century) when stenches reign the cities, and underlying them all is the stench of death and decay. This is an entropic world, where all things and all beings lust for life but the inevitable end for all is death and decay. The anti-hero, Grenouille, achieves his greatest desire, to be worshipped for his self-creation as a divinely perfumed being. This after a chain of murders of beautiful virgins. His triumph is hollow, because he cannot enjoy his transformation. His disgust for humankind means that he lacks the ability to love, and can only hate those who believe they love him.

The writer asks a lot of his readers. We are subjected to page after page of detailed descriptions, of smells, of the process of extracting smells, of Grenouille’s thought processes and actions in perpetrating his fantasies of transformation. What is left, when he is finally destroyed by a group orgy of cannibalism (no apology for spoiler here), is the grotesque proposition that the act of dismemberment and consumption is an act of Love. In effect, any moral that this story carries is destroyed by this ending. Even Love is corrupted by desire for possession and incorporation of what is essentially (no pun intended) a false, corrupt, evil beauty.

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Bringing History to Life

I’ve just spent an entertaining half hour reading some online reviews of Hilary Mantel’s two Booker prizewinners, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I know it’s not good form to read others’ reviews before you write your own, but I did this because it’s nearly two months since I finished Bring up the Bodies, straight after reading Wolf Hall, and short of rereading the books, (though I plan to re-read Wolf Hall as soon as I get my copy back from my daughter) I needed a refresher. It was fascinating to see how these books have polarised their readers. For every reader who raves about them, there is one who loathes them or thinks they are ambitious failures.

I did read Bring up the Bodies last year, in a library copy, and liked it well enough to finish it but was not captivated. When I was going on a long plane and bus trip at Christmas time, I bought Wolf Hall at the airport, thinking that it might put the sequel in context. I was captivated. I hate train and bus trips, but the time passed easily for me as I turned the pages. And when I got to my destination, I kept reading whenever the family was not my centre of attention. Not my usual practice of reading for about an hour before sleep, but every chance I got, morning, noon and night. I finished it while I was with my family, and rushed down to the bookshop to spend the book voucher I’d been given, and bought the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I liked it much better the second time around, and it kept me content on the long journey home.


I will not waste words summarising the plot, as there are so many reviews out there that do it well. Suffice it to say the central character of these two books and their projected sequel is Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s secretary who became his right head man and chief headhunter. Cromwell has been much maligned by historical accounts, whereas his rival, Thomas More, Lord Chancellor after Cardinal Wolsey, has been sanctified. Mantel gives us Thomas from the inside, taking us into his private, domestic life, his inner thoughts and calculations, as well as his scruples and regrets. By the end of Wolf Hall, I had fallen for him, and could imagine that if I had lived in his world, I would have literally done so. One of the most endearing things about him is his passion for his wife and daughters, all of whom he loses to the fever when the girls are young. He does not marry again, though he thinks about it sometimes, and it’s hinted that he is not entirely chaste. But mostly, he is too busy to give his heart or carnal desires free reign. He is warm-hearted and loyal to those he loves, including Henry, sometimes at his own expense. But he is a cunning manipulator, and when he appears to give way, he always has a Plan B. In other words, he is mostly ahead of his rivals and enemies. But his nemesis is Henry, who, as history tells us, discards him when he has no further use for him, and has him executed. But that is for Book 3.

Why do I like these books so much? I have never read anything like them. I’ve read other historical fiction, including books of the Tudor period, but none have had me spellbound as these ones did.  The main criticism reviewers have is of the use of ‘he’ to mark who’s speaking, without identifying who ‘he’ is. This is very noticeable in Wolf Hall, and I think Mantel was much criticised for confusing her readers. So in Bring up the Bodies it is less obvious, and is often modified as ‘He, Cromwell’. I found I got quite used to it after the first few pages, and knew Thomas’s voice and ways of thinking so well that I knew when it was his point of view and when it was not. I felt I was inside his head.

Cromwell is not a sweet man, or even perhaps a good one. He is dark and ambiguous, with a filing cabinet memory and steel will. He is an astute observer of character, ruthless when he needs to be, capable of violence, but he has his own code of ethics, and does what he needs to do to keep Henry happy and to maintain order and peace in the realm. First it means sidelining Katharine, Henry’s first wife, and manipulating the church and the constitution to enable Henry to have Anne Boleyn as his wife, crowned as queen. Then it means getting rid of Anne by finding men who will appear to be guilty of treason and cuckoldry, even if they are not. Here he is at the trial of the men:

He gathers himself, gathers his papers; the judges wish to confer. The case against George [Boleyn, Anne’s brother] is flimsy enough in all truth, but if the charges are thrown out, Henry will arraign him on some other matter, and it will go hard with his family… And no one has denounced the charges as incredible, at this trial or the trials that preceded it. It has become a thing one can believe, that these men would plot against the king and copulate with the queen….

Another thing I love about the books is the sensuous details of life —sights, sounds, smells, textures. Here is a description of one of Thomas’s residences, when he is at the height of his powers.

These are sounds of Austin Friars, in the autumn of 1535; the singing children rehearsing a motet, breaking off, beginning again. The voices of these children, small boys, calling out to each other from staircases, and nearer at hand the scrabbling of dogs’ paws on the boards. The chink of gold pieces into a chest. The susurration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversation. The whisper of ink across paper. Beyond the walls, the noises of the city; the milling of the crowds at his gate, distant cries from the river. His inner monologue, running on, soft-voiced: it is in public rooms that he thinks of the cardinal [Wolsey, long dead], his footsteps echoing in lofty vaulted chambers. It is in private spaces that he thinks of his wife Elizabeth. She is a blur in his mind, a whisk of skirts around a corner. That last morning of her life, as he left the house he thought he saw her following him, caught a flash of her white cap. He had half turned, saying to her, ‘Go back to bed’: but no one was there. By the time he came home that night her jaw was bound and there were candles at her head and feet.

There are many superb passages like this, jewels among the more active, pragmatic prose of dialogue and events. The outside world and Thomas’s interior world are fused in a miraculous hologram wherein the past is present, immediate, so real you can imagine stepping into this world and becoming part of it.


Filed under award-winning fiction, historical novels