I have (okay, had) a lot of preconceptions about historical fiction. The top three were:
- It’s all about war or bodice ripping
- There are always too many characters, making it confusing
- It lacks depth, focussing on narrative over characterisation
All three of these expectations were confounded by this book. Full stop.
1. a. There is almost no war
The opening few paragraphs of the book make you think it is going to be about war (NB – they are massively confusing and are actually all about ghosts) but that is the only war there is in the whole book. There’s quite a bit of jousting, and references to jousting – but that is sport, methinks, not war.
1. b. There is no ‘on screen’ bodice ripping
Just for clarity, the concept of bodice ripping is definitely a theme of this book. Henry’s and Anne’s desires, and supposed actions, are constantly referenced. But as the book is seen through the eyes of Cromwell, Henry’s Secretary (who takes part in no bodice ripping antics himself) no bodice ripping is actually seen (or 100% confirmed).
2. a. Clarity around characterisation
There are a lot of characters in this book. But I think that any potential confusion is mitigated by three things:
- This book is long, so there is plenty of time to get to know the key players
- The story is told through the eyes of one man, Cromwell, so you get consistency on who each person is and their perceived role
- The book lets you know how much you need to focus on individual characters. There is something of a hierarchy: some are often individually referred to and fully-fledged characters in their own right (for instance, Cromwell’s son, George), whilst others are infrequently referred to by name and are instead categorised by their role or the family they are a a member of
2. b. It is all about characters
In some ways, this book doesn’t tell much of a story, and definitely doesn’t tell a story which those of us familiar with British history don’t already know. Instead, what it does, is bring a well-worn story to life, through an unerring focus on characterisation. People are real, not just actors in the histories we learned in school.
The novel is beautifully written with wonderful metaphors used to exemplify the personalities of the key players, showing them to be arrogant, or witty, generous-spirited or closed-minded (or any combination of the above, and more). For instance:
- On a courtier: “No one has ever seen him ruffled. he has the air of a man who has not so much achieved success as become resigned to it”.
- On a Boleyn brother: “He is not a man wedded to action, Boleyn, but rather a man who stands by, smirking and stroking his beard; he thinks he looks enigmatic, but instead he looks as if he is pleasuring himself”.
- On King Henry: “You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.”
- On Anne Boleyn: “That is how she is, you see. Everything is ruled by extremes. She would not be his mistress, she must be Queen of England; so there is breaking of faith and making of laws, so the country is set in an uproar. If he had such trouble to get her, which must it cost him to get rid? Even after she is dead, he had better make sure to nail her down”.
In addition… A little philosophy
Cromwell is quite the thinker, leading to some wonderful philosophising, which I thoroughly enjoy. He talks of the state of the nation, truth and lies, the role of the onlooker and other big themes, referencing everyone from Erasmus to Machiavelli. Among my favourite examples are:
- On truth: “What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door”.
- On endings: “The word ‘however’ is like an imp coiled beneath your chair. It induces ink to form words you have not yet seen, and lines to march across the page and overshoot the margin. There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived by their nature. They are all beginnings”.
- On The Prince (Machiavelli): “The book seemed almost trite to him, nothing in it but abstractions – virtue, terror – and small particular instances of base conduct or flawed calculation”. (The irony of this – about which I assume the reader is supposed to be aware – is that Cromwell is far more ‘princely’ in the Machiavellian sense, than the prince himself: Henry 8).
In addition II…Forever England
As many of you will know, I am not particularly patriotic. But this novel describes England (and the English) so beautifully and evocatively, it would be remiss of me not to include a couple of quotes (and I do love a good quote).
- On class: “He is a traitor, but still an earl; he can hear his death sentence sitting down.”
- On the countryside: “These farms, these ancient manors in their walled gardens, these watercourses with their little quays, these ponds with their gilded fish rising to the hook; these vineyards flower gardens, arbours and walks”.
There is a great deal I would like to write and talk about from this book. Maybe more later. But now onward (and upward?) to the vote winner:
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/node/1189
I can’t imagine a book that sounds more completely different….