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From Phyllida's Desk

My Tudor Binge

I finished reading Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in Hilary Mantel's planned trilogy about Henry VIII and his crew as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, two days after our book club's discussion. Now I'm reeling from self-imposed Tudor overload. Wanting to know more about the standard interpretation of Cromwell and his character (as opposed to Mantel's partisan approach), I started with Wikipedia. But I also needed my regular nightly fix of TV, and what more logical than The Tudors, the over-the-top (and I don't just mean breasts spilling out of tight bodices) cable series starring the acting world's physical antithesis of Henry, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, four seasons ready for binge-streaming on Netflix. And to put the cherry on this sex-and-violence sundae, in the midst of all this, the skeleton of Richard III was dug up under a parking lot (in the R section, no less) and determined through mitochondrial DNA (inherited through the maternal line and matched with descendants of his sister Anne) to be his. We're still waiting for confirmation from the paternal line, but that seems almost superfluous, given the fantastic curvature of the spine from scoliosis.

So what did I get from this massive wallow, besides a deep and heartfelt gratitude for having been born five hundred years later, in another country? Well, let's start with the book. Most of us in the book club liked Bodies better than Wolf Hall. It's shorter and there's more of a plot. You don't have to read two hundred pages before you feel that things are actually happening. Mantel cleaned up the "he, Cromwell" problem, making it much easier to know who "he" is throughout. Some of us felt that it was a lot like reading a police procedural, a weird one, in which the detective and prosecuting attorneys must manufacture a case out of nothing, yet still adhere to laws of evidence and testimony.

And, of course, this is why some didn't like it: it's depressing to see the talents of a brilliant, self-taught, pragmatic and supremely competent man like Cromwell wasted on the contrived destruction of a woman guilty only of giving birth to a girl, suffering two unwelcome miscarriages and of growing older, as well as that of the woman's brother and four other men guilty of--being there, I guess, flirtatious and ambitious, the coterie of moths that any fascinating woman will attract.

As a writer, my Holy Grail of fiction is finding the literary equivalent of the opera singer who can "sing the phone book," writers whose style is so compellingly readable that anything they write about is interesting; writers whose books I'll read regardless of their chosen subject matter. For me, Jonathan Franzen is that kind of writer. When people ask what his book Freedom is "about," I say, "I don't know, ordinary people. It's how he writes that makes them interesting." I was drawn into Freedom from the first sentence, and when the 600+ pages were over I wished there were 600 more.

So the reason I chose Mantel's first novel for the group was the mainstream critics' excitement over her style, how she wrote a historical novel without resorting to archaic language while still anchoring her story in an authentic-feeling past. My interest in rehashing Henry-Anne Boleyn, six wives, blah blah blah, is close to nil at this point. But it's impossible to read a historical novel without becoming absorbed by (or bogging down in) the facts. Did they "really" do that? Did that "really" happen? Why or why not? Was Henry just an asshole or did he have valid reasons for what to us appears to be monstrous selfishness and cruelty?

One problem with Mantel's approach, turning Henry's enforcer, Cromwell, into a likeable character, is that many of us balk (like my blog friend gaedhal). We just can't see it that way, no matter how good a writer Mantel is. For me, this aspect of the story was less problematic. I'm willing to suspend disbelief up to a point, accepting Cromwell as a human being, not a monster: a man of multiple talents and great ambition, which bring him to the court of an absolute monarch. If Cromwell is to continue to thrive, he must figure out what Henry VIII wants and make it happen--quickly and without noise. Old new wife becoming tiresome? Ready for a new new wife? Anne Boleyn must be disappeared and Jane Seymour brought in in her place.

I did think Mantel stretched a bit, though. I was unconvinced by the conversation between Cromwell and a churchman, in which rumors of Anne Boleyn's use of "sorcery" are treated with what seems a very modern skepticism and distaste. Could men of that time truly be so sensible on the subject? And I especially wondered at Mantel's version of what for most of us is the worst aspect of this whole sordid business: torture. In the traditional narrative, the musician, Mark Smeaton, the only one of the five murdered (excuse me, executed) men who was not a gentleman, was tortured. It's his "confession" that starts the whole horrible avalanche of a "trial" rolling. Mantel writes a humorous scene in which Smeaton, after being interviewed in Cromwell's house, is locked, not in a torture chamber, but in a closet containing props and costumes left over from family Christmas pageants. For someone anticipating the worst, the encounters in the dark with the sharp points of a metal and glass star and with the disembodied peacock feathers of angel's wings are as terrifying as the sight of the rack. Out pours a catalog of wild confabulations.

I thought the concept was clever, but I didn't really buy it. The episode was creepy in some way it's hard to define; Mantel obviously shares her protagonist's contempt for this indiscreet and immature young man. According to Wikipedia, the source for the idea that Smeaton was tortured is the "usually unreliable Spanish Chronicles." Accounts of his execution say that he was "led" to the scaffold and "stumbled back" at the sight of the blood, actions impossible if he had been disjointed on the rack. It looks as if Mantel, whatever her lighthearted approach to "torture," is correct on the facts.

The TV show provided a welcome contrast, emotional and sensual, to Mantel's more cerebral account. It was in many ways much better than I expected. Content heavy on sex and violence does not require that the script be badly written, and I found most of the episodes engaging and informative. While the series took some liberties, I found it to be an excellent tutorial or introduction. One good example is its depiction of Henry's change in character, which occurred shortly after his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry suffered several serious injuries from his favorite pastime of jousting. After the worst, he was unconscious for two hours. (Nowadays, four minutes is the upper limit before we worry about brain damage.) Mantel does a brilliant job with this scene, showing the Boleyn family's careful watchfulness, controlling their fervent wishes for Henry's demise and their disappointment when Cromwell arrives, preventing chaos and ensuring that Henry receives medical attention--and wakes up.

But Mantel's entire saga is limited to the years of Cromwell's ascendancy. The TV show, which follows Henry over decades, made it clearer to modern viewers that the king, who has the power of life and death over everybody in England, including his own children and his ex-wives, has changed from a genial, friendly "bluff King Hal" into a paranoid, suspicious, resentful man, from the 16th-century equivalent of too many years playing football without a helmet. Repeated sepsis from an unhealed leg wound exacerbated by tight garters, and weight gain from enforced physical inactivity (it's estimated that Henry weighed close to 400 pounds at his death), could only have speeded up the process of a temperament morphing from happy and light, if dangerous with unrestricted power, to very dark indeed,

Ultimately, with both book and TV series, my reactions centered more on the events themselves than on the style of the telling. Henry VIII's reign is the prime example of good things happening for the wrong reasons, the reverse of the more usual case of good intentions leading to bad results.

Despite all the horror, two very good things came from Henry VIII: the Church of England and Elizabeth I. Elizabeth should need no defending, but those of you who know me will laugh at an atheist endorsing the C of E, especially as it's going through a rough patch these days. Now that civilized people can't take religion seriously, the C of E is being eaten alive by its evangelical adherents, consumed and shat out as the old style fire-and-brimstone garbage it was created to be the antidote for, with no recognition of same-sex marriage or even the ordination of women bishops. I mourn the faith of Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson (I know, I know, but I can't help having affection for the man who took a pair of scissors to the New Testament and cut out all the supernatural bits, leaving the teachings of Jesus unsullied by occultism); the church of P. G. Wodehouse and his Drones Club gadabout young men betting on the length of sermons. This truly is part of what made the British Empire great, and it's a sad thing to see it devolve into an ossified Catholic lite.

But none of this would have happened if Henry hadn't been "a bloody babyish bastard who wanted what he wanted until he didn't want it anymore and then he destroyed it," as gaedhal says. Henry wanted a divorce from his first wife and he made himself head of the Church of England in order to get it, thereby freeing England from the pope. The objection that Henry was now an absolute monarch with no one above him to check his power can be answered in one word: Parliament. If there's any doubt, look at the sorry record of the modern papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. Counterbalancing absolutism at home with corruption and cynicism abroad is not the way to modern government. Like any communist hoping that things will get worse and lead to revolution, so, ultimately, I welcome Henry's absolutism. It led, eventually, to the Civil Wars of the 1600s that, in the name of Parliament, deposed and executed a monarch a good century or more before any other European country--or America--even thought about such things.

If Mantel's books or TV's bonkbuster series lead people to think about any of this, that's a good thing. And even if all we do is read for style, or enjoy the sight of those heaving bosoms, it's still something worth seeing or reading: the perverse, ridiculous and petty motives that sometimes result in unintended and unlooked-for great consequences.

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