Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Wolf Hall Volume 3, Lockdown Reading

Lockdown reading, 900 pages
The long-awaited third, (and final) volume of the "Wolf Hall" trilogy.

I've written about "Wolf Hall" before.

Here is an account of an interview with Hilary Mantel, in which she described how she first got the inspiration for the book.

Here, I gave my experience of the difficulty of reading the original, the first volume, and some tips on how to overcome the difficulties.

My most important tip on how to read "Wolf Hall" is to start with the second volume instead of the  first.  The second volume is called "Bring Up the Bodies".
It's shorter (only 400 pages) and covers a more concise period of history, from the death of Katherine of Aragon to the execution of Anne Boleyn, (a mere four months) so the politics and the characters are simpler to follow.

Here is Volume 1, the original "Wolf Hall", weighing in at 650 pages,which covers the period 1500 to 1535.

The third volume "The Mirror and the Light" starts immediately after the execution of Anne Boleyn in summer 1536, and ends with the execution of Thomas Cromwell himself (no spoilers there, everyone knows he ended up a victim of Henry VIII.)  A period of almost exactly four years.

On finishing Volume 3, I immediately went back to Volume 2, BUTB, and started re-reading it.  It seems so much clearer now.  In fact, it becomes apparent as you progress through BUTB, that Hilary must have known pretty much exactly what she was going to include in Mirror.  Certain foreshadowing events now take on huge significance.  There are also numerous flashbacks to Thomas Cromwell's earlier life, as recorded in WH.

I will probably re-read WH again as well, after finishing BUTB.

Mirror is undoubtedly a work of genius.

If anyone is quaking at the thought, please let me recommend the audio version.  My local library supports three different platforms which enable users to download audio-books, completely free of charge. Fortunately I had already signed up for these a couple of years ago, and was therefore able to take advantage of them when lockdown closed all physical libraries.

You can also download e-reader versions, but I prefer either a book to hold in my hand, or the audio version.  I listen as I go for my daily walk (one hour in lockdown), while I do dusting or ironing, (not hoovering, too noisy), and some cooking activities (not clattering and banging ones).  I listen when I want to retreat to a separate room behind a closed door and make it absolutely plain to my husband that I am absorbed in an exclusive activity and don't want to chit-chat.

(It's chit-chat that erodes a relationship in lockdown, not silence.  Silence strengthens a bond of 41 years, and reminds me that we have survived many challenges.  Chit-chat generally causes irritation, and often ends in an argument).

I started off by listening to a section on the audio-book (so as to make the best use of the time), and then carrying on from there with the printed version.  So interesting and addictive is the narrative, however, that very often I both read and listened to whole chunks in duplicate, to get the full impact of the writing.

The audio version of all three volumes in the trilogy is read by Ben Miles, who played the lead role, Thomas Cromwell himself, in the Royal Shakespeare Company stage version of WH and BUTB in 2014.  (Tickets sold out in minutes, the furore over the whole project was so great).

Ben Miles reads it beautifully, and fully enters into the mind and character of Thomas Cromwell, even giving him a faintly rough, common South London accent which indicates he was a blacksmith's son from Putney (although the accent would have sounded very different in 1530's). He even manages to make Cromwell sound like a burly, solid bruiser of a man, which he allegedly was.

Ben also reads Henry VIII exceptionally well, conveying perfectly the monarch's selfishness,  petulance, childishness, deviousness, insecurity, and cruelty.

At the end of the audio-book, a bonus section gives an interview between Ben Miles and Hilary Mantel.  This is illuminating.  In it she says she was planning and drafting the third volume as she sat in on the RSC's rehearsals in 2013.  And that the actors playing the parts influenced how she saw and heard the characters in Mirror. She said that the TV actors in the BBC version influenced her also.  That makes sense, as I found myself seeing them in my mind's eye as I listened.

Ultimately, in this bonus section, Hilary Mantel says that these three novels are the great project of her life, and took her fifteen years to complete.

Fantastic work.  Definitely genius.  I want it to go on. I want Thomas Cromwell's ghost to peer over the shoulder of the nasty Jane Rochford when she gets her come-uppance at last (she was executed for facilitating the sexual liaisons of Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard, who was likewise  executed, in 1542).  Jane Rochford had, in 1536, betrayed her husband, George Boleyn, (Anne's brother). She testified against him, thus helping secure his and Anne's conviction in 1536.  Jane Rochford went mad, apparently, while awaiting her fate in the Tower. Cromwell would have relished the spectacle.

I want to see Thomas watch the nasty Earl of Surrey (Anne Boleyn's cousin, eldest son of the Duke of Norfolk),  arrested. He put up a spirited defence at his trial but he, too, gets his come-uppance.  Surrey was executed for treason two weeks before the death of Henry VIII.  I particularly want to see Thomas enjoying the spectacle of wicked old "Uncle Norfolk" (the Duke,  uncle to both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, wives 2 and 5 respectively), sweating out his last night on earth in the same Tower, after his son's death.  Norfolk was due to be executed the next morning, but Henry VIII died in the night, and so he escaped his fate.  He did spend the entirety of the next reign (Edward VI, six years) in the Tower.  I suspect Cromwell would have haunted him there, just as Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More, previous victims of King Henry VIII, haunted Cromwell.

Then there's nasty Wriothesley, Cromwell's former friend and protege, who betrayed Cromwell and went over to the Duke of Norfolk's side, to help arrest Cromwell and secure a conviction.  He wasn't executed, but must have been terrified that he was about to be, when in 1546 he marched confidently into the King's presence to arrest Henry's sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr.  He was confident that he could have her executed for treason as well, and had already plotted to search her papers, and had tortured (illegally) on the rack a woman thought to be a supporter of the supposed treason.

Unfortunately for Wriothesley, Katherine Parr managed (unlike her five predecessors), to effect an affectionate reconciliation with Henry, and Wriothesley was sent packing. He must have feared for his future, but got away with it and survived into the next reign.

Hilary Mantel is very taken up with ghosts, they play a marked role in Thomas Cromwell's thoughts, particularly when he realises he is on the downward slope of the King's favour, and there is little hope that anyone or anything can save him.

Hilary Mantel's own memoir, a fascinating account of her childhood, is entitled "Giving Up the Ghost", and this is a book I intend to look at in a future post.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

100 Good Things About Growing Old #35 - Further Chances to Revisit the Icons of One's Youth

Years ago, in the sixth form (circa 1970) we read poems by Sylvia Plath.  I always found them rather too difficult, although I did buy my own copy of "Ariel", which surprises me somewhat, as these days I either borrow from libraries or look online, at Poetry Foundation.  I found Sylvia's actual life more interesting, and bought a copy of "Bitter Fame" (pictured below), in the 1980's.   

Since then, new material has been published which was not then available.
One item is this, my first "Lockdown Reading" book:

Lockdown Reading:  969 pages

This has been on my "to-read" list since it was published in 2018. I took it out of the library in late January this year, and had already renewed it three times, thus reaching my limit.  Then lockdown closed the library, and I have it for an indefinite further period.

The book is long, but easy to read.  In fact, it reads like an epistolary novel.  It follows the life of Sylvia from shortly after her marriage to Ted Hughes until the week before she took her own life (in February 1963).

The introductory piece by her daughter, Frieda Hughes, is touching and illuminating.

It's Sylvia's voice, though, Sylvia's story, and how mesmerising, how vivid, how kaleidoscopic her view of life.

Sylvia's phenomenal energy, her love of food, her love of life (yes, she does come across as having loved life), her love for her mother, for Ted, and for her daughter, Frieda, all shine like beacons.

Most of the letters are addressed to her mother, Aurelia, but with additions, and without the censorship practised in the original "Letters Home" (published in 1975).  Aurelia, (as the linked, quite horrible and extraordinarily scathing, reviewer points out), wanted to present a particular view of her late daughter. The new 2018 book is a no-holds-barred version.

Yes, Sylvia did have a difficult relationship with her mother, (who doesn't?)  and sometimes her selfishness is breathtaking.

She is at times sycophantically the small daughter, craving her mother's indulgence.  At other times she is variously patronising, dismissive, critical, extremely demanding, and even controlling.  (At one point she gives her mother a list of hints on how to make a living as a short-story writer).

At the end, her poor mother is absolutely desperate, forseeing disaster after Ted's departure, leaving the raw, wounded and vulnerable Sylvia alone with a baby and a toddler. Aurelia, anguished, telegrams to the midwife in North Tawton, (Sylvia being still in Devon in October 1962),  begging her to visit Sylvia "now, and get woman for her.  Salary paid here."  This is a voice of maternal anxiety with which, as a mother of grown-up daughters, I can totally empathise.

Sylvia replies to her offers of money and support with absolute fury. "Will you please, for goodness sake, stop bothering poor Winifred Davies!  You have absolutely no right or reason to do this, and it is an endless embarrassment to me .... Will you kindly leave her out of it?"  and more in the same vein.

Sylvia then goes on, in the same letter, to rant about Ted's "insanity and irresponsibility", reports that she has cooked roast beef and apple cake and entertained the bank manager's 14 year old son (who has read Ted's poems at school).  She thinks she is "well-liked here, in spite of my weirdness" and is convinced she will be able to achieve everything if only she can get a good nanny and a London flat.  Everything, energy, food, mania, delusion, it's all there, as it is in so many of her letters to her mother.

I think her mother knew best, but as with many mothers of daughters, she was told not to interfere.

Aurelia knew the real Sylvia, who, as others found to their cost, maintained a front of being the golden, all-achieving, popular American girl.  Underneath, as her poems disclose, she has sharp hurts which will never heal, and very dark thoughts on death.

In spite of it all, I like Sylvia.  I still find her poems on the difficult side, and this is because she was so much cleverer than me.  Had I met her at university, she would have terrified me.

But I like her a whole lot more than Ted.  I never was a fan of his work, and the revelations that have emerged over the years about his personal behaviour have made him even less appealing.  I've written before on this blog about how more recent work has revealed just how unpleasant Ted was.  At the time of Sylvia's death, the prevailing narrative, as exemplified in the biography "Bitter Fame", was that Sylvia was completely mad, and Ted a man provoked beyond endurance.

How untrue that was, is revealed by Professor Sir Jonathan Bate, in his "unauthorised" biography I refer to in that post.  I'll give just two examples:  Ted's sexual adventures with the woman for whom he left Sylvia, Assia Wevill, were so extreme that he ruptured her.  And on the night that Sylvia died, he was in bed with a third woman.

It's always been known that Assia killed herself in the same manner as Sylvia, and, far more shockingly, also killed her four-year-old daughter, Shura.

How toxic does a man have to be, to have that happen twice in a lifetime?

Even after all that, Ted managed to maintain his status as the woebegone, bereft husband, and became the poet laureate.  The women who scratched out the name "Hughes" on Sylvia's headstone in Yorkshire, were dismissed as mad feminists, further examples of what a decent man has to put up with.

As far as I am concerned, however, Ted is most damned by his own words.

Another book that wasn't available in my long-ago youth, is a collection of his own letters (pictured above, published 2007).  I actually bought my own copy of this book, some years ago, but have not been able to read all of them.  Unlike Sylvia's letters, which amuse, grip, enthral and describe, Ted's are much less interesting.  In many he comes across at times as a lacklustre individual.

(To Sylvia, various letters October 1956):  ..."I have done nothing.  Almost nothing. I composed a rather silly plot for a TV play ...."  "What I have done today.  A great deal of nothing..."  "This afternoon, stupefied, I lay on my bed in a half dream from three until seven ..."

Later, after the split, he is cruelly matter-of-fact to his sister Olwyn. (Late summer 1962):
"The only help I need is cash - in an account of my own only concern is to swell a private account" .....   

As two of my friends now in their late sixties have attested, a private bank account in which to salt away an escape fund is the first requirement of the errant husband.

And even more cruelly to Olwyn, September 1962:
" Yes, it's just like her to employ a snoop ...(on his affair with Assia).

Then, tragically, in view of what actually happened:
"You're right, she'll have to grow up - it won't do her any harm".

That did it for me.

I have sifted through his later letters, but not with the enthusiasm I have for Sylvia's.  His long missive to Anne Stevenson, giving his own version of many of the events written about in her biography, "Bitter Fame", is interesting as an alternative view, but does not exonerate him from being damned with his own words in places.  His letter to his son Nicholas, dated 1986, when Nicholas would have been about 24, is astonishingly black and gloomy about life.  Nicholas took his own life in 2009 (two years after the collection of Ted's letters was published).

I find my attitude to Sylvia's poetry has not changed since my sixth-form days: it is still difficult, and dark.  But my attitude to her as a person has had much light shed.

To go back to the idea of what it would have been like to have been her contemporary at university: yes, she would have been scarily energetic and bright, but how bracing, and what good advice she gave!

Here is her letter to her friend from Wellesley, Lynne Lawner, dated October 1957. Lynne has arrived in Cambridge (England, not Massachusetts) in October,as Sylvia did two years before, and she has complained that she is "freezing, sick and uncertain". 

Yes, anyone who arrives at Cambridge in that season feels frozen, and the first term at a new university does leave one sick and uncertain.  Sylvia is bracing; "Well, so was I. Cambridge is worth this ....."

Sylvia remembers the feeling of being out of one's depth:   "If you are now feeling as ignorant, unread, unintellectual as I did ... you would do well to discipline yourself .... simple discipline helps a bit...." 

If only someone had told me this in October 1972, when I arrived at a different university on the freezing Eastern side of England, feeling ignorant and out of my depth.  I failed to discipline myself, and have paid the penalty throughout my life since. 

Her final words are even better:  "Practical advice about the miserable cold. Wear stockings ... and wool kneesocks over them .... Get a hotwaterbottle and pre-warm your bed at night ..." 

And don't skimp on the gas meter, and go out and buy proper food, don't rely on the ghastly college offerings.  Wonderful stuff.

But maybe in real life, such a laser personality ("death-ray", as Ted unkindly described it) would be too much.  Anyway, fifty years later, and without the need to discipline myself to respond academically, I have a second chance to visit this literary icon.