November Books 12-13) Two novels about Henry VIII’s reign

I'm up to episode 5 of the The Tudors and took the time to get through two blockbusting novels with the same setting, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (which covers the 1527-1535 period in the life of Thomas Cromwell) and Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl (told from Mary Boleyn's point of view, covering a longer period, 1521 to 1536). It's quite startling to compare the two books with each other, with the TV series, and with the historical record; one obvious conclusion is that the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was a dramatic affair for the human beings involved which inevitably attracts authors who want to tell a good story. The fact that it also had far-reaching historical consequences which still reverberate today is a bonus for the reader.

The two books are very different from each other, however. Wolf Hall is certainly the better of the two: In Mantell's hands Cromwell becomes a fascinating character, carrying the baggage of a brutal London upbringing, always mindful of his family away from court, ascending the greasy pole of power rather in spite of his own best instincts. She really summons up the smell and feel of Tudor London, and the alarming sense of fragility of life – not just from the king's displeasure, but from illness, violence, or accident. The novel ends with Cromwell's ascent to full power; I believe a sequel is brewing which will cover the last five years of his life, and I will certainly buy it.

The Other Boleyn Girl is, alas, a fairly standard romance novel with well-known characters. Unlike most historical accounts, Gregory makes Mary the younger sister, watching as the older Anne first connives at her own affair with the king and then ruthlessly replaces her; as Anne approaches her doom (which she partly brings on herself by incest and witchcraft), Mary ends up with a nice but humbly born man who takes her away from it all. Mary is such a naive first-person narrator that it gets a bit irritating at times. But it is well-written and perhaps more approachable than Wolf Hall.

The central character of each of the two books is a background figure in the other, and neither is particularly well served. For Mantell, Mary Boleyn is a fading but demanding former royal mistress with important but fraying family connections. For Gregory, Cromwell is a dodgy political figure ensuring Anne's rise for his own reasons. Both of them come out in roughly the same place in portraying Henry VIII as randy, short-tempered, and tough on his advisers (Jonathan Rhys Meyers' portrayal on TV is of a rather younger man).

After reading these, the one person who I really ended up wanting to know more about was Anne Boleyn. Only Mantel explores her character at all positively – she is the villain of Gregory's book, and the depiction of her as the court flirt in The Tudors goes back at least to Shakespeare and Fletcher. But she kept Henry chasing her for years (from their first encounter in 1525 to their marriage in 1533), which is pretty impressive considering that he could basically have had any Englishwoman he wanted. It's also strongly suggested that she was genuinely Protestant in sentiment, which would make her a rather advanced thinker and would perhaps give her an extra motive (besides the obvious personal one) for wanting the Church to be under direct royal control.

Anyway, we have another 33 episodes of The Tudors to go, if we can keep the pace.

One thought on “November Books 12-13) Two novels about Henry VIII’s reign

  1. The later Deryni novels are in some ways more technically proficient than the early ones but otherwise less good, and even the early ones are not quite as good as one’s memories of them (there was far less other heroic fantasy around for comparison when they were first published) – though Deryni Rising at least is still well worth reading, for any reader who finds that an intricate and fast-placed plot compensates for somewhat inexperienced writing and a view of medieval society that seems to be primarily derived from the early days of the SCA, and the later Deryni novels, while getting tied up in rather complex infodumps and some rather lengthy descriptions of rituals, keep at least a flavour of the earlier ones.

    But, after a first quick glance at the Harris collaborations, I always steered clear of them, and I’m almost certain that there is nothing in Kurtz’s solo work that is as bad as the line quoted by Nicholas.

    Of Kurtz’s non-Deryni solo work, I rather enjoyed St. Patrick’s Gargoyle, a standalone novel published about a dozen years ago and set in modern Dublin – though, for Nicholas’s sake, I’d better note that the two main characters are the aforesaid gargoyle and an elderly Knight of Malta (and the Templars do get a look in). But the gargoyles are fun characters, the Knight of Malta is a rather lonely and fairly ordinary old man, and she has an obvious affection for Dublin.

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