Book of the Week: Those of you jonesing for Season 4 of The Tudors will be able to make do temporarily with 2009 Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, 2009; 532 pp.) Praised by Washington Post reviewer Wendy Smith as “a brilliant and deft antidote to the otherwise trite and shopworn” retellings of Henry VIII’s six marriages, it is truly one of the best historical novels I have ever read.
Of course, as constant readers of this blog know, I find virtually no recounting of this story trite or shopworn, and one might have to ask Smith: what do you think brings readers back repeatedly to the events of 1531-1535, when a sexy little nobody succeeded in changing the history of the western world forever? There are plenty of subplots in this bloody tale that seem to recur in our political and cultural life — not to mention in countless, anonymous, personal lives. What is greater — our empathy for the discarded Queen Katherine, or for a vain king who justified his middle-aged lust for a canny woman with a dubious insistence that England required a male heir? Do we admire Ann Boleyn for using the one bit of power she had (as Shakespeare would put it, the purse) to deny the king the fulfillment of his lust until he brought her and her scheming family to power? Indeed, one of the more interesting and subtle questions Mantel raises in this novel is whether the male heir that Henry Tudor claimed was his sole desire was truly necessary. The extent of the king’s folly is pointed up by the fact that he not only already had a female heiress, the Princess Mary, who was the descendent of a powerful reigning queen of Spain; but a healthy bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, who would have been more easily legitimized than Katherine was divorced.
In fact, in Wolf Hall what is at stake is a form of legitimacy that we are far more familiar with in the modern world: the political legitimacy of the state. Thomas Cromwell, usually the scheming villain of the tale, is the hero of this one as he carefully pries the state away from an increasingly dissolute nobility and towards its modern foundation in capitalism and the law. Why is this a different Cromwell? The answer is linked to previous authors’ dedication to his villainy. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is a template for what the English middle class (it was Napoleon, following Adam Smith, who would fatally underestimate the state born at this moment as a nation of shopkeepers) would become, as it first seized the reid of credit, and then power, in the face of the solipsism, hypocrisy and vanity of its nobility and the Catholic Church. As Christopher Taylor of The Guardian writes:
Mantel’s Cromwell is an omnicompetent figure, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Fluent in many languages, learned, witty and thoughtful, he’s also an intimidating physical presence; Wolsey fondly compares him to “one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes”. This makes him an ideal emissary for Wolsey’s project of liquidating some smaller monasteries to fund a school and an Oxford college. But self-advancement isn’t Cromwell’s only motive. He’s disgusted by the waste and superstition he encounters, and takes a materialist view of relics and indulgences. The feudal mindset of Wolsey’s rival grandees seems equally outdated to him: jibes at his lowly origins bounce off his certainty that noble blood and feats of arms now count for less than lines of credit and nicely balanced books.
As Henry Tudor steers the ship of state unthinkingly towards political and economic disaster (egged on by the Howards and and Ann Boleyn who steers the monarch’s reason southwards), Cromwell steps in to guard England’s borders, keep the country solvent, rein in the nobility by literally putting them in his debt, and become the architect of a new secular law that reins in the King’s worst excesses. The interior Cromwell is beautifully drawn by Mantel, as is his strategic insinuation into the King’s confidence following the death of their mutual mentor in statecraft, Cardinal Wolsey. In her search for a new political story, Mantel also links Cromwell to the revolution of the domestic sphere that the break with Rome would unleash. A skillful sub-theme of the novel is Cromwell’s dedication to a new kind of shared authority within his family, to female autonomy and intelligence, and to the importance of love in marriage, all hallmarks of the political consolidation of the bourgeoisie. Cromwell, more generally portrayed as a political despot by historians and novelists, is perceived by Mantel as a nationalist who worked behind the scenes to relieve the effects of despotism, in public and in private, and lay the groundwork for the future of enlightened government.
And have I said it is an outstanding read? In other news:
Extended Deadline for submissions to World History Association Annual Meeting, 24-27 June 2010, San Diego: Why do I know this? Because the WHA would particularly like more LGBTQI submissions. Go here for the CFP. The dual theme is “Gender in World History” and “The Pacific in World History” (extra points for intersections between the two, I imagine.) The deadline has been extended to February 28th, 2010. In fact, while you are at it queer historians, help take our work to the next level and re-imagine those nationalistic conference proposals that compare three lesbian bars in three different United States cities (sometimes changed up with a paper on a Chicana softball league in San Francisco) for all your submissions to Meetings of Learned Societies. Just an idea.
Margaret Fuller Conference: “Margaret Fuller and Her Circles, April 8-10, 2010, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.” OK, I’m such a sap that I go to the MHA just to drink in the atmosphere, but I also have to say that they do a great mini-conference. I went to a New England American Studies Association Meeting there a while back and it was one of the most fun conferences I ever attended, with small groups of people meeting in an intimate setting and carrying over an increasingly more complex conversation from session to session.
Just Received in the Mail: NYU Latin American historian Greg Grandin has the cover of this week’s issue of The Nation on The Pentagon’s New Monroe Doctrine that maps US military deployment in the Caribbean basin and the eastern Pacific.
And of course, if you think as I do that Grandin’s combination of political savvy, scholarly acuity and ability to write for a general public is of star quality, you will also have spent a moment this week saying:
Farewell to Howard Zinn: A historian who was the essence of cool in a generation of pretty cool historians. Once again, The Nation has a nice obit with some video of the man.