This month’s “real-life” book group (I’m not being facetious with those quotation marks by the way, but am just trying to distinguish the group from the Listener Book Club itself) is from Wellington and includes a number of public servants – for whom the internecine intrigue and blood-letting of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies must have seemed a busman’s holiday (although I’m told they stop short of the rack these days, even at ACC).
The group started life 10 years ago when a bunch of likeminded friends and then acquaintances got together over wine at the Backbencher pub (where else?) and decided to meet more regularly to talk about their shared love of reading.
“At the time,” says member Tiffany Thomas, 38, “most of us were freshly back from our OEs, starting out in new jobs and new flats in Wellington. Ten years and several weddings, children, mortgages and job promotions later, we are even closer friends and we still meet up at each other’s houses ever four to six weeks to gossip, laugh, eat cake, drink wine and sometimes we even remember to talk about books.
“Unlike other books clubs, we don’t all read the same book at the same time. Instead the host picks a theme and we all bring along a different book to talk about and lend out to the group. Some recent themes include the Man Booker Prize longlist (which had several of us reading Mantel’s Wolf Hall), New Zealand Book Month, “my favourite children’s book” and “not my genre”, which urged us to look beyond our literary comfort zones for something a bit different.”
As always, we asked everyone taking part in our discussion to tell us their favourite books – and this month’s group quite rightly refused to limited themselves to just one choice.
Tiffany - A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Cat Major, 38 - Daylight by Elizabeth Knox; The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester; the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian; the golden age crime novelists (Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham).
Tina Joel, 38 - Possession by AS Byatt; The Secret History by Donna Tartt; Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams; The NeverEnding Story by Michael Ende.
Helen Donnelly, 39 - The Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker; The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Tu by Patricia Grace.
Amelia Jones, 36 - Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; plus “what I think of as being my dad’s books (old-school sci-fi and fantasy), as well as bach books from the 80s (fat plotty novels like A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford).
Deborah Mayo, 34 - The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin; any Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett.
The discussion took place over a couple of weeks via Facebook.
Tiffany got in first, on May 29: “I read Wolf Hall back in November 2009 and had been impatiently awaiting the sequel ever since. Bring Up the Bodies certainly had the most hyped pre-release fervour I’ve seen in ages for a book. Mantel’s publicity team must have been very hard at work. People seemed quite excited. Perhaps it’s because not a lot of Man Booker winners do have sequels, so it was a novelty. Worth the wait, I reckon. I really enjoyed it (yes, I’ve finished).”
Tina: ”I came home early from work today, feeling a bit crook, and had great plans for getting more than 16% through the book (thank you for that accurate percentage, Kindle). Instead I retreated to bed with the Listener. I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far, and am relieved to see that I recall more of Wolf Hall than I feared I might have forgotten. Mantel’s writing isn’t lazy or banal, but she easily brings the reader into what feels like a contemporary narrative, with personalities and situations that a reader can recognise instantly – without a TV Tudor schlocky feel. Masterfully done indeed.”
Cat: ”What I liked most about the book is that it’s about people, what motivates them, why they do the things they do to each other, and the universal drive to attain (and hang on to) power. Everyone expresses that drive in different ways depending on how they can exert power, but even Henry has it. I’m not sure if I’d really describe it as a historical novel; CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels (for example) have much more local colour and social history woven in than these do. But Mantel pays much more attention to people and their motivations.”
Amelia admitted finding herself “going back rather often to Google for more information”, which struck a chord.
Tiffany: “I’m glad I wasn’t the only one. Maybe it’s becoming part of reading in the Internet age. For example, I just had to go Google for the Holbein portrait of Cromwell after the long mention of it near the start of the book. I had this urgent need to see it myself even though Mantel’s description was pretty spot on.”
Amelia: “Maybe I should have made that my profile picture. I had forgotten the story of Katherine of Aragon. I think I must have read the Philippa Gregory book about her and have read around her time when I was studying Spanish. What a life, huh? Daughter of the Catholics Monarchs of Spain and then to England. She could be a good person for one of those ‘famous dead people to dinner things’ but could turn out to be a pious bore.”
Helen: “I also found myself Googling to check events and characters, as I began to get confused about what was happening to whom and when (possibly too much Philippa Gregory between Wolf Hall and now for me, too). I am keen to read the next book and get Mantel’s take on Anne of Cleves.”
Tina: “I’m getting a strong sense of Mantel trying to communicate the frustration experienced by smart, educated and uneducated women of the day. Where being born into a life of privilege would benefit you little more than if you were born a drudge. Do you think a male author would have bothered to include that sub-theme? And do you think Mantell considers it a necessary nod to the mostly improved contemporary position of women in society?”
Amelia: “Aren’t all her main female protagonists privileged, though? The only exception I can think of is Cromwell’s wife and she is remembered by him with love but as belonging only to the domestic sphere.”
Tina: ”I’ve just gone past Cromwell spending a casual night with an embittered inn-keeper’s wife, which is why her frustration is still fresh in my mind. It probably relates to Cat’s comment about the driving theme of the book being about people’s attempts to gain or manipulate power.”
Amelia: “But there is this really obvious bit on p265 (yes, I went back and looked for it) where Cromwell reflects that ‘a young married gentlewoman has no way to help herself. She has no more power than a donkey; all she can hope for is a master that spares the whip.’ He had contrasted this with a labouring woman who can get her friends to beat up her husband or a merchant’s wife who can squirrel away some gold. That separates women by class and circumstance rather then by intelligence. There’s a lot about a woman’s lot as a woman: from getting the chop when you’re no longer required to having a lovely husband and being happy (there is at least one, the lower-class women married to Cromwell’s protege who appears towards the end, too) … The men have the gravitational pull and the women circle them. They are independent and have their own axis but their field of movement from that is limited and controlled by men or death. I think a male author would have given the same impression but would not necessarily have given so much space to the women in the book. It doesn’t come across to me as a nod to ‘golly, don’t we have it good now’ but as part of the exploration of the human condition that goes on throughout the book. Perhaps it’s just the women stand out because we’re women living now? It can’t have been fun having to orchestrate someone’s death because they were annoying, not as docile as the other girl, and didn’t produce a son (to paraphrase).”
Cat: “I love the descriptions of Cromwell as the consummate civil servant. The first mandarin?”
Deborah: “I found the motivations suggested for Cromwell’s actions interesting. Whilst Cromwell’s commitment to public service is clear, towards the end revenge for Wolsey is the focus of his choice of men to investigate. This creates an interesting contradiction for his motivations, or maybe desire to be a good public servant merely provided opportunity to get revenge that he wasn’t adverse to take. Not sure what evidence Mantel has for this, or if it’s just from her imagination.”
Amelia: “I see both Malcolm Tucker (The Thick of It‘s sweary chief of staff) and Yes, Minister‘s Sir Humphrey Appleby further down his whakapapa.”
At this points, Amelia admits ”I hadn’t read Wolf Hall. I now want to. This is probably what sent me to Google, as I was trying to catch up on who was who and to be reminded of how they fitted in to the picture. But it still made sense by itself, though. My overall impression from a first read is that it was okay. It was well written, and now I keep thinking of the New Yorker review where James Wood said the secret to writing a good historical novel is to write a good novel. It is that. But - and this is the personal part - it didn’t capture my imagination and draw me into the world. I’ll return to it and ponder why not. I didn’t have an emotional connection with any of the characters. It’s not that I need to like them or relate to them, but it felt a bit like their actions were being guided by the invisible hand of history rather than welling up from either the character or his/her situation. You may all disagree now, and this could be something I miss from not having read Wolf Hall, but the characters, I thought, were missing what I can only think of as souls right now.”
Tina: “Hah, another excellent point. You, the reader, are in a smug and privileged position throughout the reading, knowing full well the fate of major characters. I’m interested to hear you felt it had a distancing effect. If you hadn’t known it was a historical novel, would you have responded in the same way, I wonder, Amelia? Like Cat, I had lots of smirky moments of public service recognition as Cromwell tries to improve the lot of the People.”
Amelia: “I think I would have. I’ve read plenty of novels and sometimes I connect with the characters and sometimes I don’t. It’s not the historical novel in and of itself which does it. This is not like a sci-fi book where the characters are balloons floating around in an interesting world. There is heft to them. It’s the lack of soul.”
Cat: “Do you think this is deliberate? The practice of referring to Cromwell only as ‘he’ adds to the distancing effect. It can also be clumsy, especially when Cromwell’s interacting with a group of men; Mantel is forced to say things like, ‘He, Cromwell’, so while it’s a striking literary effect it doesn’t always work that well.”
Tiffany: “Yes, that annoyed me on more than one occasion too. It interrupted the flow a bit when you had to pause and work out which ‘he’ was the subject.”
Deborah: “I agree as well. I think you have captured why I struggled at first with this book; it was hard work to keep the flow going until you got used to it.”
On finishing the novel, Deborah said: ”I read Wolf Hall and very much enjoyed it. I found the sequel harder to get into and I struggled with the first part of the book. The pace picks up through the book and it is an interesting view on a time in history that has been written about at length.”
Tina: “Good point, Deborah. I think Mantel has done an amazing job in making the Tudor story seem fresh again. Especially, as Helen noted, in the wake of Philippa Gregory’s bodice-rippers.”
Tiffany: “Very true. Have the Tudors had a resurgence in popularity in recent years or am I just more aware of it since I am myself quite fascinated and more than a little obsessed? I think I’ve read most of Philippa Gregory’s Tudor books plus quite a few of Alison Weir’s. And I frequently dip in and out of David Starkey’s Six Wives book about Henry’s queens.”
Deborah: “I finished Bring Up the Bodies with the feeling that the most interesting part of Cromwell’s story may still be to come – his involvement in the Anne of Cleves debacle and his fall from grace with Henry.”
Tiffany: ”I agree. I can’t wait (although suspect I will have to, and for some time) for the last in the trilogy. Although my impatience is tempered somewhat by knowing what will happen next. It’s always a bit bizarre reading historical fiction, knowing already how things will pan out. But I have to say it’s the mark of a good historical novelist and her ability to write such a compelling ‘story’ that, even though I knew perfectly well that Anne Boleyn was off to meet the swordsman, I still kept stupidly hoping for a last-minute reprieve. From what we do know of her, I can’t imagine Anne ever going off quietly to live out her days in a convent, but a naive part of my subconscious did hold out a small hope. You know if it was a Hollywood blockbuster that someone would have swooped in and rescued Anne at the last minute.”
Helen had a question for everyone: ”What did you think of the piece in the middle of the book where Cromwell was plotting and imagining a dinner? It annoyed me as it weakened the portrayal of Cromwell’s strength and reliability. It seemed unnecessary and excessive. A style experiment gone wrong?”
Tiffany: ”I didn’t like that either. It was basically that ‘who would I invite to a dinner party if I could invite anyone in history?’ game. Always fun to play in real life but it seemed somehow lacking in imagination for an author to have a fictional character to engage in it. I agree completely, Helen. It seemed too immature for a man of Cromwell’s strength to waste time thinking about.”
Tina: “I really didn’t find it too far from Cromwell’s regular internal monologue; judging others, then indulging in a bit of sarky imaginary punishment. He’s so careful a politician that he can’t afford to take the action in real life as he’d like to, against the vain, the foolish and the sycophants. I wonder if a scene like this is Mantel’s way of showing the start of a weakening of Cromwell’s focus and judgment? Or simply that, after so many years in court, the common man has tired of the aristocracy?”
Helen: “Potentially, but Cromwell has been heartily sick of the aristocracy the whole way through the book, and is very aware of the distrust they have of him (mutual, of course). Mantel does take a number of opportunities to set up for the next book – Henry being Cromwell’s only friend, for example - but I’m not convinced the dream sequence helps with that.”
Tiffany: ”I think my opinion of the dream sequence is coloured by having so many English teachers at school drum into us that ‘…and then I woke up’ was the worst cliche in writing and to be avoided at all costs. I confess to skimming over dream sequences in every novel in which I find them. It just feels like cheap writing to me. And Mantel is better than that.”
On reaching Cromwell’s “utterly ruthless” interrogation of lute-player Mark Smeaton, Tina said: “I’m expecting a Tudor water boarding next.”
Tiffany: ”Poor Mark Smeaton. I imagine him as a pretty but vacant young thing, totally believing Anne was in love with him.”
Cat: “And not all that smart – not much of a handle on what was actually going on, or how to deal with Cromwell.”
Tiffany: “A bit of an historical dumb blond, you reckon?”
After listening to our enthusiastic podcast discussion of Bring Up the Bodies, Amelia said it left her ”feeling a bit like at the end of Raoul [at the New Zealand International Arts Festival], where I clapped politely and the rest of the theatre burst from their seats. I could appreciate the book for being clever, and the work and skill that had gone into it, but I didn’t connect with it.”
Tiffany: “I was relieved to hear the podcasters say that they too needed to refer to the list of characters at the front of the book. I have a reasonable grasp of Tudor history but it’s hard keeping all those smaller players straight in your mind. And did you notice there were nine Thomases and six Henries in the list!? Parents weren’t hugely imaginative with names in the 1500s.”