Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Heart Historical Fiction

Guilty pleasures . . . I have a few. . .Ketchup on steak (I know!) . . .the TV show, Glee . . .and most importantly, historical fiction. I especially love historical fiction that involves Henry VIII or Josephine Bonaparte. Oh that they lived in the same era! In a world populated only with people holding English degrees, historical fiction would be known simply as "smut", containing no more literary value than a Harlequin Romance. I sometimes find myself arguing about some historical fact when the little light bulb comes on in my head reminding me that most of my historical knowledge comes from works of fiction, and I am forced to back down.

Imagine my surprise (and my glee, so to speak) when Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. The Man Booker Prize is given for the best original full length novel written in English by someone who lives in The Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland, or Zimbabwe, and past winners include Disgrace by Coetzee, The Blind Assassin by Atwood, and Life of Pi by Martel. Wolf Hall also won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Finally, a book of historical fiction that I could proudly read as "literature".

Wolf Hall is told by Thomas Cromwell, who held various posts during Henry VIII's time. If you do not know who Thomas Cromwell is before starting Wolf Hall, then this is not the book for you. In fact, if you don't know what the "Field of the Cloth of Gold" is you might want to read something lighter first. In my opinion, this book was written for people like me, who devour historical fiction, for people who majored in history in college, or possibly for upwardly motivated businesspeople looking for tips from history. If you're not there yet, start with The Other Boleyn Girl, The Constant Princess or The Boleyn Inheritance, all by Philippa Gregory, or if you are up for a BFB, The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George is worth the read. The Gregory books all focus on periods of time in which Cromwell was involved, while the George book covers Henry's life from beginning to end, in which Cromwell figures prominently.

Somewhere around page 420 of Wolf Hall, with about 100 pages left in the book, two questions popped into my mind: 1) why do all of the other books that I read that include Cromwell make him out to be such a bad guy; and 2) how is Mantel going to wrap this up in 100 pages, when all of the juicy parts are yet to come?

I was quickly reminded of the answer to my first question, when Cromwell suggested to Henry that a law should be enacted requiring every English person to swear to uphold a line of succession to the throne that included Anne Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth, and excluded Katherine of Aragon's daughter, Mary. To believe that Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne was to be a traitor, for which the penalty was hanging and disembowelment. Granted, it was not Cromwell who enacted the law, but he deserves blame for suggesting it, and to a large extent, for implementing it, resulting in the deaths of many Englishmen. Cromwell is remembered as the villain, and Henry is remembered not for having so many of his subjects put to death, but for having so many of his wives executed.

I learned the answer to my second question when I did a wikipedia search of Thomas Cromwell, and learned that Hilary Mantel is writing a sequel to Wolf Hall. Yes, this whole 532 page novel details Cromwell's ascent to greatness, but does not go on long enough to get us to the good parts. In fact, the title, Wolf Hall, in itself, references a more scandalous period in Cromwell's life, which Mantel leaves yet to come, with the title of the first novel serving only as a teaser of what will happen in the second.

If Mantel's sequel were available at my local bookstore, I would not run out today to get it. Wolf Hall is amazing in that given that it is a book written for those who already know the story, Mantel was able to leave out the best known parts of Cromwell's history, and still write an interesting and award worthy novel about one of England's more infamous bad guys. By the time the sequel is out, I am sure that I will be ready for more of Cromwell and Mantel.

Next up: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Yes, in addition to having guilty pleasures, I also have guilt about the book not yet read.

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