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23 January 2015 @ 10:07 am
Wolf Hall, take 2  
Guess who's still struggling to read Wolf Hall? (I think I'm going to set it aside soon, if I keep having this problem, because right now I'm hypersensitive to this issue.) It's just that it feels demeaning, to keep taking ideas and beliefs that would have been normal to quite a few people if not everyone, and only holding them up as silly things that our urbane, clever characters like Cromwell and Wolsey could never believe. Wolsey tells Cromwell that Henry VIII can't actually believe that God has cursed his marriage to Katherine of Aragon - not because Wolsey thinks the king is self-serving enough to use such an idea for his own benefit, but because the king is too "rational" - that's the word Mantel has Wolsey use, "rational" - to believe in such a vengeful God. (And Cromwell's narrative voice backs this up, in case we were in doubt about what we should think: "It's not the hand of God kills our children. It's disease and hunger and war, rat bites and bad air and the miasma from plague pits" [75]). Never mind that the idea that it was a sin to marry your brother's wife was an accepted idea for many people - as was the idea that Wolsey disclaims a few pages later, when he says that "They say" that the sweating sickness is a visitation from God, only to continue airily that he "can't pretend to know his purposes" (83). Only the undifferentiated, dismissible masses of "They" could seriously entertain such an idea. Meanwhile, Cromwell mocks Thomas More for - so far; he hasn't actually shown up as a character yet - basically praying in the mornings. It's true that More gets in a swipe about how usury is bad - again, not an uncommon belief for a religious man to hold - but listen to the language Mantel uses to contrast these two men:
These are good days for him: every day a fight he can win. "Still serving your Hebrew God, I see," remarks Sir Thomas More. "I mean, your idol Usury." But when More, a scholar revered through Europe, wakes up in Chelsea to the prospect of morning prayers in Latin, he wakes up to a creator who speaks the swift patois of the markets; when More is settling in for a session of self-scourging, he and Rafe are sprinting to Lombard Street to get the day's exchange rates. (83-4)

Mantel undercuts this very, very slightly by remarking in the next sentence that Cromwell can't actually sprint, because of an old injury - but just look at the way she contrasts them here! That needling use of "Sir" before More's name, the way More "settles in" ponderously for his old-fashioned Latin and his old-fashioned scourging (and "session" suggests nastily that this is just measurable routine for More, rather than actual belief) - and Cromwell, by contrast, is a man of the future, whose God speaks in a "swift" tongue (so unlike that cumbersome Latin!) and who can 'sprint' off to where the real power and importance lie: not with the old, backward-looking scholarship of Europe (after all, if the scholars "revere" a man like More, they must be behind the times, right? It's More who is the "revered" false idol here, not usury), but with the fleet changing of every day's exchange rates.

But these aren't separate ideas, or at least they don't have to be; it's not actually the case that you can only be a good businessman by ridding yourself of the antiquated belief in morning prayer. It's not actually the case that just because you yourself don't pray in Latin, it's a given that you mock and belittle those who do. What keeps bothering me about the beginning of this book - and I've only made it eighty-five pages in, so things could change, I suppose - is that the world of the book is being set up so that the only people we are supposed to take seriously are the ones who hold only "modern" views, like Cromwell and Wolsey. Look, here's the thing: I already know that self-scourging is an extreme thing to do. I already recoil from imagining the pain of it. What I want to know, from historical fiction, is why someone like More would have seen this as an important part of his life, and yet as much a part of his day as putting on a shirt. I don't need some modern mouthpiece like Cromwell to feed back to me the prejudices that I already probably have, to praise the ideas of the present at the expense of mocking the past.
the cold genius: total dickhead by redsharlachangevin2 on January 23rd, 2015 09:23 pm (UTC)
The more I read about this book (which I haven't read, because I am a terrible, terrible early modernist*), the more I am amazed that my mom liked it, given how much she likes to feel like Catholics are still terribly persecuted. She was extremely offended, for instance, when The Tudors had Wolsey commit suicide.

(*And because what I've put together about it gives me the impression that it would feel like talking about Thomas More with my extremely anti-Catholic dissertation director, who is an Anglican doing Reformation studies at a Jesuit university and thus likes to think it's that rather than his complete lack of people skills that makes him unpopular.)
tempestsarekind: peddlers of bombasttempestsarekind on January 24th, 2015 12:35 am (UTC)
Heh. I've been putting off reading it since the book's publication (obviously), but people just keep assuming that I've already read it, and that I must have loved it (because they read it and loved it, so of course it would be right up my alley!). Which mostly just made me put it off more.

I think More turns out to be kind of a jerk, based on some reviews I read, so it is a bit surprising that your mom liked it! Although I think Wolsey is depicted in a positive way, so maybe that evened things out?
a_t_raina_t_rain on January 24th, 2015 01:48 am (UTC)
Yeah, More is a massive jerk (in ways that, IMO, are not at all implausible, although I'd never imagined him in quite that light before).
tempestsarekind: quite a good arm actuallytempestsarekind on January 24th, 2015 04:03 pm (UTC)
I realize now that I have actually not spent very much time imagining Thomas More at all. :) Which is odd, because I taught Utopia and brought in pictures of the More family portrait for my students...