Ye Olde Literature

It just occurred to me today that I have spent a significant amount of this year in Tudor England. No, I am not in possession of a time machine – except in the most allegorical way. But the books I have been reading over the last few months are, in large proportion, set in Tudor England. This is largely because I have been catching up on various book series.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

First, I finally got around to reading Bring Up The Bodies (BUTB) by Hilary Mantel – the sequel to Wolf Hall (WH), which I read when it won the Booker Prize. I have no excuse for why it took so long to get to the sequel, except that I found some of the linguistic techniques she used in WH quite hard-going, and so the sequel had failed to be the first to my hand when looking for something to read. When I finally did pick it up, I sped through it; Mantel appears to have dropped the conceit for the second book which caused me the most difficulty with the first (not using quotation marks, or a new line, for dialogue; together with marking it only with “he said” or “she said”, rather than the name of the character). It made BUTB a much easier read, but a contrary bit of me misses the literary device. I read very quickly, almost too quickly, as I can miss a lot of the detail. Proof of this is the fact that I can often go back and read a book again, straight after finishing it, and pick up new things on the second read. So it was a useful discipline, having to read more slowly (or rather, to be accurate, read the same paragraph a couple of times) so I could follow the dialogue correctly.

Both books (and there is, I believe, the promise of a third to complete the trilogy) focus on the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble origins to become Henry VIII’s chief minister. WH is set during the years of Henry’s wrangling with the Church to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, which resulted in the split from Rome and the establishment of the Church of England with Henry at its head. I trust that doesn’t represent spoilers for anyone reading this! BUTB is set during the period of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII, and documents her fall from grace.

I am embarrassed to admit that I was barely aware of Thomas Cromwell before embarking on WH. Since then, both from reading Mantel’s books, and some of the others listed below, I have realised quite how influential he was – which, given the times he lived in (where, for instance, your class dictated what you could wear, and to flout the ”sumptuary laws” was a criminal offence), was quite a feat – but at the same time, humanises a historical figure considered by some to be a monster.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

I am currently reading the sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation, by C.J. Sansom, also set during Henry VIII’s reign. The first five – Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and Heartstone – were interesting companion pieces to WH, as Thomas Cromwell appears as a character in some of them. Indeed, I read the one in which Cromwell dies (I forget which one that is) just before reading WH, which confused me greatly! The series are, broadly, whodunnits with Matthew Shardlake, a (fictional) hunchbacked lawyer as the central character. But the richness of atmosphere Sansom creates gives a wonderful insight into the social, religious and political culture of the times the books are set in, together with the “sightings” of real historical personages within Shardlake’s narrative. As well as standing up well on their own within their genre, these books are a real treat for anyone with some knowledge of the history. Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t read all of this series and don’t want to read spoilers.

SPOILERS! I think I whooped out loud when I read Shardlake’s description of “the Lady Elizabeth”, and realised this was the adolescent future queen (sorry, I’ve forgotten again which one this was in). And Heartstone features Shardlake taking a trip to Portsmouth, culminating in him finding himself on board the Mary Rose as she sinks! This may not sound all that impressive to some of you, but I have a vivid memory of being pulled out of my primary school class to watch the raising of the very same Mary Rose, which had been lying at the bottom of the Solent ever since. That’s how to bring history to life (not making schoolkids watch interminable hours of not very much happening, but establishing a personal connection between the reader and subject)!

Spoilers over! Lamentation is set near the end of Henry’s reign, but the political and religious intrigue is as fierce as it ever was. I’m really enjoying it, not least because I have come to really like Matthew Shardlake, who Sansom brings to life as a complete human being, with successes and failings both.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

Another couple of series as well, albeit different from the first two for a couple of reasons: they are set in Elizabethan England, rather than the earlier Tudor times I have been reading about, and they involve – to varying degrees – one of my guilty pleasures, the supernatural. I have read all of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, about a woman vicar in Herefordshire who has taken on the role of diocese exorcist (or “deliverance consultant” as the modern church would have it – although that just makes me think of rednecks duelling with banjos, which is unfortunate). So I was pleased to discover a couple of other books by Rickman, about Dr John Dee, again a historical figure who was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. The Bones of Avalon and The Heresy of Doctor Dee are, like Sansom’s Shardlake series, whodunnits but with a bit of a supernatural twist.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

I was on tenterhooks waiting for the final instalment of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, The Book of Life (BOL), to come out in July, and filled in the anticipation of that event by rereading A Discovery of Witches (DOW) and Shadow of Night (SON) to prepare. I am a big fan of the fantasy sub-genre that has many names but I like to call urban gothic, i.e. set in a recognisably modern world, but with vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night. A wider discussion of my love of this sub-genre shall be reserved for a possible future blogpost, but Harkness’ trilogy deserves an honourable mention for anyone interested in the genre but wants to draw the line at teenage angst. These books are about grown ups.

DOW is set in present day Oxford, where an American historian can’t escape her witchy heritage when she discovers a strange book in the Bodleian library and meets a mysterious vampire. The first book establishes the mystery that our main protagonists, Diana (the witch) and Matthew (the vampire), investigate throughout the trilogy, and leads us from Oxford, to southern France, to New England. SON has Diana using her magic to take herself and Matthew back to Elizabethan England (with a trip to Prague) in search of more clues; a tricky visit, not least because Matthew has already lived through this period once. BOL brings us back to the present day, with a whirlwind of cities as Diana and Matthew race to solve the mystery, and save themselves from persecution for their forbidden relationship.

It may seem odd to include this series under the Tudor England category, when only one book is set there. But when you have a book about vampires who have lived through that time, the series continues with an Elizabethan flavour despite the setting. Plus SON involves so many walk-ons by historical characters (including a certain Dr Dee) that it is a joy to turn the page.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how important Audible has been, during my immersion in ye olde England. I first started listening to audiobooks in my teens, primarily to help me get to sleep. At that time, it was well nigh impossible to get anything but abridged versions on cassettes (then later, CDs), so it was with untrammelled joy that I discovered Audible – whose catalogue is increasing all the time and are now primarily unabridged versions. There is nothing worse than looking forward to a favourite passage of a book, only to find the abridger has cut it out! Whilst there is still the occasional misstep, particularly with unusual names or specialist vocabulary (as an Oxford graduate, I winced at the American narrator’s pronunciation of “viva” and “Magdalen” in the Harkness books), I can rise above that to enjoy the luxury that is being read to.

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