Monday, December 31, 2012

Monsters in the Hall

This book lives up to its billing.
The big people, and many of the little ones, who dwell in the court and country of Henry VIII -- that wife-consuming monster of English royal history -- stand up and walk around in your thoughts after Hilary Mantel's king-sized novel of uneasy-headed Tudor history.
The novel was published two years ago -- she's already published the sequel (which like "Wolf Hall" was named the best fiction of the year in the UK). But if, like me, you've told yourself this is a book you should get around to, the word here is: yes, you should. It's a big book and it will make hungry for more; and now there is more ("Bring Up the Bodies").
Henry's court, like "the revolution" of the parable, eats its children -- Cardinal Woolsey, Queen Katherine, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, so many more. So danger, even tragedy, is lurking on every page. Untimely death strikes ordinary people too, struck down in horrifying numbers every summer or so by "the plague." In a world where "this life" is so temporary, it's easy to appreciate the universal concern over the "next life." Today we assume we have "time" to think about all that. The 16th century was not so lucky.
Mantel's creative powers -- it's hard to find terms that don't understate the artistic quality of this book -- rewrite the history we think we know. Henry himself is not such a bad fellow when compared to some of his peers. It's just that he's in a position of seeing all his wishes -- both the sensible ones and the terrible -- enacted in the flesh, with nobody else in the whole country able to say 'stop it, you idiot, and think about what you're doing.' Think CEO, Donald Trump maybe, with a handy torture chamber.
The single figure from this nest of high-born vipers that those of us who have read Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" regard with admiration and sympathy, Thomas More, turns out to be one of the quicker hands to reach for the thumbscrew. At a time when theology is written in blood, More is the colossal defender of the Church of Rome's orthodoxy. Nothing so horrifies him as the thought of an Englishman daring to read the Bible in his own language. It makes him want to build a fire.
Against this vision of turning dissenters into torches, the villain of Bolt's play, Thomas Cromwell, enters from the wings as a near-heroic everyman. In comparison to the vain, shallow aristocrats who clog the court, like bad plumbing, Cromwell possesses a combination of qualities and virtues that doesn't send a modern, egalitarian sensibility yearning for a guillotine. He's a working class hero whose rise to middle-class and professional stature makes the democrat in us stand up and salute. The only other figure who attracts more than repels is Woolsey, a prince of the old church whose own common origins, and practical abilities, make the Tudor court's upper-class twits want to destroy him on general principles.
Mantel has us admiring Woolsey for his decency even while teaching Cromwell the principles of effective public policy, and personal survival, in a court of medieval cannibals. She has us loving Cromwell for keeping the Machiavelli in his own makeup in check while he pulls strings, out-thinks and --in very middle-class fashion -- out-works everybody in sight to become the single essential man for Henry; even as Henry extracts the Church of Rome from not-so-merry old England (particularly its extensive real estate holdings) and replaces the church's claws with his own.
Of course, the book isn't all class and religion and power -- three ways of saying the same thing -- it's about mating too. But even here, the king's desire to replace Queen Katherine with Anne Boleyn, not as concubine but as wife, is about how to rule a country. The king needs a legitimate heir. Unlike all other women, Anne, this book tells us, is a power in her own right. Her ambition is not so different from the others', Cromwell's even, and she uses her refusal to let the king get what he wants to get what she wants.
All of these characters -- and scores of others -- are imagined with rapier strokes of exactitude and plausibility in circumstances far more often quotidian than grand, as in real rather than "dramatic" life. They are more real to us in the end than the two-legged pygmy monsters walking around D.C. today. Truth may be "stranger" than fiction. But fiction on this order makes it more real.
"You choose your prince," Cromwell says. Therein lies the tragedy. It tells us much about human nature and human society (more than we want to know) that everyone in Henry's England prefers the notion of an absolute monarch, however flawed and tyrannical, however monstrous, to the absence of a clear and unimpeachable power to rule over them. Five centuries later, in the land of checks and balances, we're glad we're beyond all that. At least, shudder, I hope so.