Inhabiting Fiction Part 1

By WittyKnitter

Last year I read Wolf Hall. Devoured it, digested it, was mildly obsessed by it. Googled various characters to understand how Hilary Mantel was retelling and balancing the generally accepted histories. As a good Catholic I was brought up, of course, to believe that Sir (St) Thomas More was the goodie of this period of history – I remember a popular biography of him being read to us in chapters during mealtimes when I was on a retreat in a convent as a teenager, and we ‘did’ the Robert Bolt play that portrayed him as a martyr, A Man for all Seasons, in my last year at school. (And how come I didn’t realise that the Common Man character in that was Cromwell?) Cromwell is a controversial character, and Mantel makes More very unpleasant – fanatic, woman-hating, narrow-minded and mean, which was surprising to me. But Cromwell, his world…

I have never really wanted to live in any past era, not being fooled by any notion of ‘good old days’ or ‘golden ages’. But Mantel has made me want to experience the world that she describes. The richness of the food, the decorations, the textures, the colours, the comfort. She describes a world of luxury that comes to life at Cromwell’s behest – he makes it so, and so it is. She has him, in a sense, creating the Tudor Court as well as his own personal spaces and family. There is the wonderful last line, in which he is about to set up the King’s next marriage, sensing as he does where things are going between Henry and Anne Boleyn (shown as a wonderful vixenish and intriguing woman). And, of course, there are the tortures, the burnings, the ghastly deaths – both natural but unexpected (you leave your wife in the morning, and return at night to her corpse, taken in fever) and horribly anticipated (involving mutliation, humiliation and such pain as can’t be described). I really did inhabit this book while I was reading it and for about a week after.

In June I spent a wonderful day at Hampton Court, remembering scenes from the book and imaging them taking place there, in those rooms. Do people in the UK visit these restored ancient buildings, I wonder? Or is it just tourists like myself who lose themselves in the detail of furniture and decoration in these spaces? I don’t consider myself an overly romantic person, but the chance to walk through rooms that were designed and built four or five hundred years ago, and that have been meticulously kept and/or restored, is something I could never take for granted. It brings my reading of history to life.

23 Comments

  1. Posted August 20, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    It’s the second time this book’s been recommended well. (old friend, couple months ago). Should look into it, I never remember to read fiction.

    Interesting that More is a hero to the Church. Others who have defied their doctrine over matters of individual conscious would not be so lauded even tho’ the same heroics manifests. The virtues of the principle being defended don’t matter so much as the individual will to stand firm against entrenched orthodoxy despite the dire consequences.

    Tom More had to be a bit of a jerk. He was a good friend of Hank’s. Hank was a lot of things but nice? Look at his portraits, (Hank’s) He’s always a mile wide with a big codpiece pointing at us. Macho shithead.

    Macho shitheads only like other macho shitheads. Underneath the dignity More was a macho shithead too. He didn’t lose his head over the integrity of his soul. He’s not a martyr for the cause of religious freedom. It was all just a pissing contest between macho shitheads. If beheading your mates was legal they’d have it every week on The Footy Show.

    Maybe it should be legal.

  2. conrad
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I try and read the Booker winner every year and I must admit that was one of the few that I didn’t especially enjoy. Perhaps I need to go to Hampton Court first.

  3. Posted August 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    British people do visit these old piles, or at least some do. I expect the biggest proportion are school kids on field days but they’re not the only ones. I got to play unpaid amateur tour guide now and then as various future in-laws came over and Hampton Court was always a favourite, closely followed by the Tower of London, Brighton Pavilion and Windsor Castle. I also enjoyed dragging them around some towns to see ancient churches (no admission, please give generously to the roof fund, kind of thing) just because I can still remember how to tell the difference between Saxon and Norman churches just by looking, and because even though I’m not the believing kind buildings that have been in weekly use for over a thousand years impress the hell out of me. When I first moved to Oz I spent several months driving around Melbourne trying to work out what was weird about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and eventually I realised that it was that the buildings, especially the churches, are all relatively new. Anyhow, old churches, castles, cathedrals, palaces and stately homes are usually worth a visit, and in London I’d include the British Museum, the Natural History/Science/Geological Museums in South Kensington, the tour of Tower Bridge, a nice long walk around looking for bits of old Roman wall, the London Eye (go twice – once on a nice day and once after dark) and the Tower. I’d say the Tower was best value apart from the free things as you can easily spend half a day there, and I’d say avoid Madame Tussaud’s which I’ve long felt is overpriced, over too quickly and just crap. Give my regards to any rioters you meet 😀

  4. kvd
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    and in London I’d include the British Museum

    Having spent most of a day at Greenwich Observatory, my wife then suggested we might ‘hurry things up a little’ by ‘doing’ the Tower and the BM the next day. We had a row and ended up doing neither. It remained a continuing source of acrimony that ever after I just couldn’t help myself saying something like “Sistene Chapel – tick! Port Arthur – tick! Pompeii – tick!” despite any amount of time enjoying same.

    My wife was a Brit; and unfortunately I have yet to visit the British Museum – which of course is all my own fault.

  5. kvd
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    LE you are of course ever right. The problem I had was that it was my wife’s ‘home’, but it was my heritage, so we were looking at the same things through way different eyes.

  6. kvd
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Stonehenge – tick! (just joking – it was supreme, wonderous, and how could they do that, and why, and who were ‘they’?)

    Also, I’ve been to the Big Banana; but it’s somehow not the same – although quite big-ish.

  7. Posted August 20, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    I am very careful, when travelling, not to overdo it. Far better to see a few well-selected museums and sights properly while retaining interest, then to compile a checklist and turn everything into a blur.

    For my part, I have to be careful with Roman sights that other people find boring (eg, tombs). I get something out of them because I can read all the inscriptions, a personal privilege that other people don’t necessarily enjoy. I am also fond of graveyards generally, I must admit; I find both Rookwood in Sydney and Kensal Green in London endlessly fascinating and very revealing, an interest than many people find peculiar.

    On the horrible misogyny of just about everything after 313 AD: yes, it is very wearing, and if you are a classicist it is possible to watch it emerge with mounting dread, knowing that it will end very badly for women generally and for institutions founded on attempts to ‘Fight Charlie Darwin’ more specifically as one of my biologist friends says. It starts with the pagan Stoics, very small, and not with women but with gays: in a well-meaning attempt to stop married Roman men screwing around, otherwise good and non-misogynistic people like Musonius Rufus do their best to portray (gay) sex as wanton and lacking control and (much later) as unnatural, sometimes even bringing in images of decay and rot (‘all good things must pass’ etc), but the whole awfulness explodes in the early Christians, in Tertullian and Augustine, who plainly hated women, but hated women because they (ie, T & A) couldn’t stop wanting to have sex with them, so had to portray them as filthy and disgusting and somehow lesser (this, of course, tied naturally to the doctrine of Original Sin).

    Even worse, it was noticed at the time: one of the standard pagan criticisms of Christianity was that the Christians loved humanity but hated people (‘hatred of the human race’ Tacitus called it), and there is something horribly prescient about his words, and the words of other pagan critics who said similar things.

    And then, of course, it has all come home to roost in the institutional collapse of Christianity in a mass of sex scandals and sexual crimes in our own day (not just Catholicism; while the Catholics were busily abusing little boys, the other denominations were busily abusing children of both sexes). I have no doubt that Islam will blow up in due course in exactly the same way (maybe it is already, come to think of it). Even the gentle Buddhists, who have never been as doctrinaire and always allowed their monks and nuns a ‘get out clause’ are groaning under the weight of their inability to control human sexuality, while the social constructivist school of feminism is busily sticking its fingers in its ears and going ‘lalalalalalala’ in an attempt to deny empirical reality.

    Somewhere there is a mid-Victorian gentleman with a big beard, a man often cartooned as a monkey, shaking his head ruefully, pointing out that we can manage what he discovered in the Descent of Man, but we cannot control it, and attempts to do so are imputing godlike powers to ourselves, godlike powers that we simply do not have.

  8. Chris Bond
    Posted August 20, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    In answer to WK’s

    Do people in the UK visit these restored ancient buildings, I wonder? Or is it just tourists like myself who lose themselves in the detail of furniture and decoration in these spaces?

    Yes, indeed! I’d agree with almost everything AE says @4… I’ve never ‘done’ Hampton Court but want to; never been to Brighton Pavilion and am not sufficiently keen as to want to battle thru traffic to do so. But the museums, Windsor Castle, the Tower, yes, yes, yes. Also have visited and enjoyed the Imperial War Museum; definitely LE’s pick, Stonehenge, and while down in that area, Salisbury Cathedral. Absolutely definitely Kings College Chapel at Cambridge, even though they now charge exorbitant entry fees – but the Henry VIII wooden partition is a glory to behold amongst all the other glories of that building, see e.g. http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/chapel/virtual-tour/index.html … (and the rest of the old university buildings in the very compact town were also worth strolling around on summer days); ditto Oxford’s university glories. Others too: Blenheim Palace (birth-place of Sir Winston Churchill); Lincoln cathedral; Cardiff Castle … Great Britain – small islands, LOTS of history!

  9. Posted August 20, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Also, I’ve been to the Big Banana; but it’s somehow not the same – although quite big-ish.

    As a native Queenslander I can assure you that the Big Pineapple is vastly superior (and the cafe does a great pineapple parfait). 😉

    I go to see the British Museum every time I’m in London and I can’t really claim to have ‘done’ it fully yet (I always get really distracted by the history of money). Have ‘done’ the Tower, but for what they charge for admission these days I’d expect to not only spend the entire day there but sleep on the lawn overnight as well. 🙁 Despite living almost next to the thing I still try to get up to Edinburgh Castle a couple of times a year, for my own enjoyment as much as visitors’. Less keen on the Palace of Holyrood, although it’s a lot more practical as a day out when it’s raining. If there is a castle or an archaeological site in this country I have NOT seen on my many UK visits since small-childhood it’s only because the archaeologists haven’t found them yet either (my mother and I came to an understanding early – for every mill shop she gets, I get a castle or cathedral or something else historic… as long as there is a 1 in 3 hit rate for castles).

  10. kvd
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    DEM, please don’t remind me of mill shops. Have managed to suppress those memories for some years now.

  11. Posted August 21, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    [email protected] They have moved most of the armoury out of the Tower of London anyway. It is mostly at Leeds nowadays.

  12. Posted August 21, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Henry VIII was such a shit head was because he had syphilis

    I thought syphilis arrived after he died. I’m too lazy to look it up.

    I’ve heard that the Italian government expends a significant section of the country’s GDP maintaining its relics and ruins. I’m too lazy to look that up as well.

  13. Posted August 21, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    [email protected] According to Wikipedia, the first recorded outbreak was among French troops besieging Naples in 1495. The list of notable cases includes Henry VIII, but suspected rather than confirmed.

  14. Posted August 21, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Angry Exile @4: Thanks for those. They are all in the list I am keeping for my next trip. And now I’ve added the V&A to that list, because the building of it is a thread of the plot in my next book review, which is of The Children’s Book by AS Byatt. I’d been there before, but in stressful circumstances (accompanying my late partner who was in a wheelchair), and we didn’t have an easy visit. I’d like to see it again.

  15. Old woman of the nor
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I loved ‘Wolf Hall’, so read ‘The Six Wives of Henry Vlll’ then one about the enormous work Thomas Cromwell did in creating effective bureaucracy in England. Then found one on Thomas Cromwell by a chap who seems to be a Catholic and hates him for his part in Henry becoming Head of the Church of England versus the Pope.

    Chris Bond, you missed a wonderful experience at Brighton Pavilion. It is a wonderful example of a completely designed building – down to the palm tree pillars in the kitchens.

  16. derrida derider
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, Wolf Hall was a good novel. lf you like it try A Place of Greater Safety, which is the same sort of novel – history on the march propelled by the beautifully drawn passions and psychology of a few individuals.

    I suspect, though, that Mantels’ unsympathetic portrayal of More and Bolt’s unsympathetic portrayal of Cromwell were both more historically accurate than the saintliness of Mantel’s Cromwell and Bolt’s More. After all, it is a matter of record that More did do a lot of heretic burning when in power, and Cromwell was the professional hatchet man of a king who became known for hatchet-wielding.

  17. Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I suspect, though, that Mantels’ unsympathetic portrayal of More and Bolt’s unsympathetic portrayal of Cromwell were both more historically accurate than the saintliness of Mantel’s Cromwell and Bolt’s More. After all, it is a matter of record that More did do a lot of heretic burning when in power, and Cromwell was the professional hatchet man of a king who became known for hatchet-wielding.

    This strikes me as true; most powerful and influential people in the past, I suspect, were not very nice, and even the nice ones (Marcus Aurelius comes to mind) either did not live up to their own beliefs (the Stoics were abolitionists) or otherwise had their moments. Aurelius thought Christians were ‘hysterical exhibitionists’, for example (this assessment is in an imperial rescript giving a group of Gallic priestesses in Lyon permission to burn some local Christians as trinqui, a form of Celtic sacrifice outlawed by Julius Caesar; the correspondence has come down to us because the priestesses queried the Emperor, who answered himself rather than instructing the jurists in his Privy Council to do so; the latter was the normal Roman practice).

  18. Martha Maus
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Dem, I am sorry to say that the the Big Pineapple is in receivership and has been sold. The Big Pineapple itself Is heritage listed. Ahh yes, my state, Queenland, we will will knock down beautiful buildings like this http://qldhistory.blogspot.com/2011/06/destroyed-icons-bellevue-hotel-brisbane.html, in the dead of night to prevent heritage listings but we know how to appreciate fibreglass fruit- it’s our Stonehenge!

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