Sophie of the Hundred Blogs

Well, this is my one hundredth blog post. I have blogged on all sorts of stuff over the last year and a bit: writing, books, popular culture, the 70s and 80s, Feminism, my town. And often I just randomly mind-dump.

Today’s post has a little of most of these things.

I am waiting for my copy of Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, the follow-up novel to the astounding Booker winning  Wolf Hall. Both novels deal with the story of Thomas Cromwell, aka Alistair Campbell with an Axe (I blogged about this some time ago.).

Wolf Hall finished with Anne Boleyn in the ascendancy at court; we all know what her fate will be in this second novel. Not good.

Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, must be one of the best known female historical figures, with so many films made and books written about her. She has intrigued and fascinated generations.

I was in London recently with my daughter for a hospital appointment. Afterwards, as a ‘treat’, I dragged her to the National Portrait Gallery, knowing she would eventually appreciate seeing the Tudor portraits. The iconic Anne Boleyn painting wasn’t there. It has been undergoing urgent restoration but the upshot of this is that it is now believed to have been painted shortly after Anne’s death, so is probably a good likeness.

As for Anne herself, she remains an enigma. She was undoubtedly charismatic, intelligent and ambitious with great faith and courage. But she was also fighting for her life, knowing she held a precarious position, used and manipulated by the men around her. It is remarkable that we are still intrigued with Anne Boleyn’s story hundreds of years later.  I can’t wait to read Mantel’s fictionalised version of events.

But for me, I will always think of her as she was in the film Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) which I saw as a child on the telly in the 70s. Richard Burton was a superb, yet obvious choice for King Henry, but I was really moved by Genevieve Bujold in the title role. I loved the premise – sadly untrue – that Anne made a last minute deal with Henry who came to visit her in the Tower: her life in exchange for her daughter Elizabeth to hold her claim to the throne. The tragic irony is that Henry’s overwhelming desire for a son was completely misplaced. His younger daughter Elizabeth was to become one of England’s greatest, longest-reigning monarchs.

If you watch this clip of the execution scene, you will notice her look at Cromwell (played by Greek-Canadian actor John Colicos of Star Trek fame), right before the French executioner does the bloody deed. And if you ever get the chance to watch the whole film, look out for Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited cameo…


Alastair Campbell with an Axe

I am a member of Exeter Writers and as a spin-off,  a member of Exeter Writers Book Group. We met yesterday to discuss Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and for once we were all in agreement: it is a triumph of a book. Whatever your views on historical fiction – how far can the novelist go in characterisation, the blurring of fact and fiction, research versus imagination – this is a novel that brings alive this key period in the  Tudor dynasty, with freshness and surprise.

We came a bit late to the party, I know. Amongst many glittering prizes and shortlistings, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker in 2009. It was on my list of to-read books and so I was delighted when it was chosen by a member of our book group; I actually needed the motivation to read the 600 plus pages as I am a lightweight when it comes to novel length (if you see what I mean).

And yes, I got confused from time to time with the notorious ‘he’ thing but this did in effect slow me down, forcing me to go back over the text and gain something deeper. This novel works on so many levels but what I liked the most was Mantel’s use of viewpoint and tense. By having this very close third person narrator (the ‘he’ thing) and using the present tense, we are there in the thick of it, spinning and weaving and ducking and diving with Cromwell. We know as a modern reader how this will end; we have the benefit of history on our side. But none of the characters share our knowledge. Henry has no idea he will end up with six wives. Anne Boleyn does not know that her slim neck will be sliced from her once-adored body by a French swordsman. No one has the first inkling that Baby Elizabeth, with her tufts of red hair, will one day become an icon of English monarchs. Maybe only Cromwell suspects how his fate will pan out and makes hay while the sun shines.

Historian David Starkey has referred to Cromwell as ‘Alastair Campbell with an axe.’ Mantel sets out to show him in a more sympathetic light and succeeds as the reader can’t help but warm to him. His lowly violent childhood, his sense of humour, his love for his family and friends, his experience and memory, these traits all combine to make another portrait of Cromwell, one we have never been shown before. Thomas More has always been held up as the good one. Indeed, at my school, a convent, we had four houses, each named after a Catholic martyr. (I was in More.) In Mantel’s retelling, Thomas More comes across as sinister and stubborn and as the eternal enemy of Cromwell and the Reformation.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Now I’m looking forward to the next installment and will not be put off by the length of it. Not since Ray Winston’s cockney Henry VIII have I been so excited. Especially as Mantel has hinted that we may be in for a surpise. Though one thing’s for certain: Cromwell will come a cropper.

What goes up must go down.