The Wives of Henry VIII, by Antonia Fraser

Last week’s Wolf Hall got me thinking about history. Since most of Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell’s character was invented, I wondered what right we have to tamper with persons and events from the past. Stories are what we remember, far more effectively than lists of facts. Those early lessons of Abe Lincoln reading in his log cabin and George Washington and the apple tree linger in some essential layer of our imagining, stronger than any later biographical reading, even after we know they are fictional. Film is even more lasting: biopics and even pure fiction about past events seem more real to us than the facts we carefully researched.

Milan Kundera’s Immortality investigates the effects of a tale told after someone’s death and how, told often enough, it can come to seem the truth, even when it is completely false, such as the images Bettina Brentano fabricated about both Goethe and Beethoven after their deaths becoming the ones that would be remembered. We see it today when politicians and talk radio blast a pernicious lie about someone in office, repeating it over and over until the foolish crowd comes to believe it is true. How much more insidious, then, to launch such a campaign after the person is dead and no longer around to defend themselves.

Writing a biography is a tremendously difficult task. Hard as it is to finish a novel—all those blank pages to fill—it is harder to write nonfiction, such as a memoir where you are limited to what actually happened and who people really are, at least to the best of your memory and perception. Biography is that much harder because you must research the person’s life, without your own memories to guide you. And it had better be someone who fascinates you because you are going to be spending years delving into the minutiae of that person’s days.

All these considerations increase my admiration for those historians and biographers who do make the huge investment to bring us stories of past lives. Some years ago, I heard Edmund Morris speak about Dutch, his controversial biography of Ronald Reagan where he inserted fictional characters and even an imaginary version of himself to help dramatise the story. Morris described the years of effort that go into researching a biography and his own horror when he realised that the person was simply not very interesting. While I don’t agree with Morris’s decision to fictionalise his biography, I do understand that in biography, as in memoir, you cannot help but distort the truth of a life by the scenes you decide to dramatise and the words you choose to describe them. Not that any of us knows what the truth is, even of our own lives.

I enjoyed Wolf Hall but knew little about Cromwell’s life and couldn’t evaluate the thoughts and feelings Mantel attributes to him. Certainly her picture of the man is consistent and believable. I did know a bit about the period and decided the best remedy for my uncertainty was to consult other sources.

I’ve always enjoyed Antonia Fraser’s histories. Her style is engaging and easy to read, even though she doesn’t resort to fictional techniques like invented dialogue. In this book, she gives us a Henry who becomes more and more impatient and self-indulgent, and sets this portrait within the context of the times, when marriage for love was rare for anyone, but especially so for a king. But her focus is really on each of the six wives in turn. She not only brings them to life, but uses them as a lens to look at the condition and treatment of women in the 16th century. For example, Anna of Cleves’s mother kept her close, not just to preserve Anna’s virginity with its cardinal importance as dowry, but also her sexual innocence, which gave her an air of virtue, perhaps even more prized than the hard-to-determine technical virginity. However, Anna’s ignorance was so great that she told her ladies-in-waiting that she believed her marriage had been consummated because Henry had kissed her and held her hand. She had no idea how to please the king in or out of bed. Her lack of education in languages and social intercourse—not uncommon in her Germanic home, but very different from the English court with its flirting and courtly humour and love of all things French—put her at a disadvantage and contributed to Henry’s disappointment in her, a disappointment so strong that, although he went through with the arranged marriage for diplomatic reasons, he could not beget the backup heir he so badly needed.

This is quite an interesting book, heavily sprinkled with footnotes which reassure the reader as to the authenticity of the material without interrupting the flow of the story. Sadly—for my purposes—Fraser does not have a lot to say about Cromwell, giving me nothing to set against Mantel’s picture of him. Her depictions of Henry, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn do accord well with those in Wolf Hall. And of course, it is impossible to know the full truth about someone, even a near family member, much less a man who lived almost 500 years ago. It’s hard enough to know the truth about ourselves, as Cromwell discovered near the end of Mantel’s book when he realised that he had the face of a murderer.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

This Booker Award-winning novel is based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose to become a trusted advisor to Henry VIII. After running away from his abusive blacksmith of a father to become a soldier, Cromwell learns accounting, diplomacy, and many languages as he moves among the capitals of the various European empires. He becomes a lawyer and eventually a protégé of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey sets him to investigating and sometimes closing monasteries where corruption—the selling of indulgences, fathering of children, etc.—has run rampant. Cromwell is interested in the new religious reform movements, believing for example that everyone should have access to a translation of the Bible, but he has no hatred for the Catholic church, only for corrupt priests.

Most of the narrative is concerned with the period when Henry has become obsessed with Anne Boleyn. In searching for a way to marry her legitimately, he turns to Cromwell who has the extensive contacts, the balance sheet of favors given and received, and the shrewd insight to manage the people around him. By focusing on Cromwell's thoughts, plans, and feelings, we see how he manages with a delicate twitch upon the reins not only his employees and contacts, but also the Boleyn/Howard clan, the royal household, and Anne herself. A cautious man, he knows how to count the costs, how to balance his desire for revenge on those who made Wolsey’s downfall so humiliating with his recognition that today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s ally.

It is a fascinating ride, following the gradual hardening of this man, who starts out merely practical, loving learning and his family, and yet becomes the monster who haunts the history books. No single step seems so very bad. I’m reminded again of the children in The Diamond in the Window, one of the first books I discussed on this blog, and how their small choices in one game led them to quite different personalities than they expected or wanted.

Although some family trees and a cast of characters are provided, knowledge of the historical context is assumed. You don’t need to know it to enjoy the book. You can read this book simply as a novel about an interesting man and a perennially popular time period. You can read it for insight into how it is possible for someone to become as lost to human compassion as those we see in our own day prosecuting wars for their own personal benefit and inflicting torture on the powerless.

However, knowing Cromwell’s later fate as Henry struggles to rid himself of wife #4, Anna of Cleves, adds poignancy to Cromwell’s reaction to Wolsey’s downfall and to Cromwell’s attempts to bridle the king, who wants what he wants. Knowing about the later reigns of Henry’s two daughters makes their childhood influences more striking, such as Mary losing her title of Princess and being required to wait on her baby sister. Knowing the roles they will later play makes some of the minor characters more interesting, such as Anne’s musician Mark Smeaton and her pale lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour.

Cromwell’s huge accomplishment in having Henry declared head of England’s church is presented as one small step in a long string of diplomatic negotiations, as it undoubtedly was, no matter how much it may seem to us like a cataclysmic explosion. The religious controversies of the times are certainly part of this story but not the main thread, as they are with so many other novels of the times.

The strength of the book, aside from the character development, is in the details—of ordinary life as well as court life. Mantel’s research is so well integrated that it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate how extensive it must have been. Emotional detail, too, caparisons the story, as in the subtle changes in Cromwell’s relationship with Anne Boleyn and the gentle teasing from his daughters that he not only endures but cherishes. He is not a man who gives himself away; his opinions and feelings are hidden from us yet we learn to read the signs and come to understand this most complex man.

My one frustration with the book was that the dialogue is often not attributed, forcing me to go back over several pages of dialogue to untangle who said what. The pronoun “he” does not reliably refer to the last-named person, as we have been trained to expect. While this stylistic choice is consistent with Cromwell’s reticence and tendency toward self-effacement, it more than once made me throw down the book in disgust. But I always came back, wanting to immerse myself once again in the world of 16th century England and Cromwell’s ride into history.

House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

I first read this book back when I was young and hoping to learn from novels what the world was like. Along with Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady, House of Mirth filled me with a horrified apprehension about the possible consequences of a woman's choice.

The scene is New York in the 1890s. Lily Bart, one of the most intriguing characters in all of literature, lives with the aunt who took her in after her mother's death. With only a tiny income of her own, Lily is dependent on her aunt's occasional gifts and on the generosity of her friends, who invite her to house parties, concerts, and dinners. She knows she must marry money if she wants to regain her footing in the affluent world where she and her parents lived before her father's untimely death. The task should be an easy one: Lily is extraordinarily beautiful and possesses all the social graces to attract and hold whomever she chooses. Yet here she is, 29 years old and almost on the shelf.

The problem is the streak of independence that she's had since childhood, the ability (or curse) to view her social world from the outside with a sardonic eye. We watch as she almost lands a wealthy young man, only to lose him at the last moment by sleeping in and missing church, which she had promised to attend with him. Selden, a young man on the fringes of her social life, shares and reinforces her tendency to look down on the amusements and vanities of her wealthy friends.

One member of my book club thought the story read like a Greek tragedy, with Lily brought down by a character flaw. Others thought that what keeps Lily from social success is not a flaw, but rather a personal integrity that puts her society friends to shame for their hypocrisy and narcissism. One of the great strengths of the book is Wharton's biting social commentary and astute assessment of people's motives. For instance, she says of a young couple: “. . . the two had the same prejudices and ideals, and the same quality of making other standards non-existent by ignoring them. This attribute was common to most of Lily's set: they had a force of negation which eliminated everything beyond their own range of perception.”

Another book club member mentioned that the book is described as a satire, though none of us thought it satirical at all. In our view, the book criticizes a society where wealth combined with the right attitude can purchase status and security, where a woman's options outside of marriage are limited to the penurious existence of a do-gooder, or a subsidiary role providing social advice, or a shady life among the demi-monde.

Lily should be annoying, with her constant scheming and her desire to achieve the life of wealth and privilege that her friends enjoy. Yet I could not help but feel for her, as she sabotages herself every time she stands on the brink of success, falling lower and lower through the shoals of society until the poor working girl she once patronized comes to seem an enviable symbol of happiness.

One scene that particularly affected me comes right at the beginning, when Lily enters Selden's bachelor apartment, with its stacks of books and innocent entertainments. He says, “‘My idea of success . . . is personal freedom.'” Lily wishes that she could have just such an independent existence, where she could arrange her own furniture and choose her own curtains. But of course such a thing is impossible for an unmarried woman. Reading this scene, in my own comfortable study, surrounded by my acres of books, I was profoundly grateful that I live in today's world. With all its flaws, our society at least has given me the freedom that Lily could only dream about.

Mourning Ruby, by Helen Dunmore

The title and the cover photo of a little girl in a red coat skipping through autumn leaves told me what this book was going to be about. I didn’t want to read it, the emotional journey being one I didn’t want to take. So I hesitated there in the aisle of my favorite used bookstore, holding the book in my hand, not opening it; just looking at the cover.

It’s a lovely cover. Since I’ve been learning about book design, I took a moment to analyze why it was so pleasing. First off, it is uncluttered. As in most book covers these days, the photo takes up the whole space. Your eye is drawn first to the figure of the girl in the top third of the cover. Her bent back leg exactly parallels the band of leaves which slight curves across the center. Her downward glance, her straight front leg, and the curve of the leaves all lead your eye to the author’s name and title at the bottom third. The palette is limited to the greyish white of the ground and stone wall, shades of tan and brown in the leaves and the girl’s skin and hair, and the red of her coat which is echoed in the leaves and in the color of the text. It’s a glorious cherry red, not strident as red can sometimes be.

I hesitated further because I’d enjoyed an earlier Helen Dunmore book, Love of Fat Men, which I picked up at an International Festival of Authors solely because of the title. Some might say that selecting a book because of its title or its cover design, even allowing myself to be influenced by this packaging shows how superficial my judgment is. I’m okay with that criticism. I am affected by packaging. The quirkiness of the title appealed to me. It told me that the book would be something out of the ordinary.

You have little else to guide you in selecting a book if you aren’t already familiar with the author’s work. You could open it up and read the first paragraph. Writers agonise over that first paragraph, the first sentence, to make it something that will capture your interest. Design experts say you have only six seconds to grab a potential reader’s attention.

Titles are important. They can intrigue you enough to make you pick up the book. They can hint at the contents or—as in the case of the book I held—tell you too much about them. I almost never use my working titles as final titles. Instead, for me, they function as reminders of the core of the story or of the original impulse. I think titles and the description on the back cover are the hardest things to write. They are so short and so important. There’s no chance to blather on and fix or supplement them in the next paragraph.

I did buy Mourning Ruby and read it. It was not as harrowing an experience as I’d feared: sad, often, but quirky, moving back and forth in time, exploring Rebecca’s life, introducing odd characters such as Mr. Damiano, originally a carnie but now creator of hotels where people find what they most want. Rebecca and her husband, Adam, a neonatologist, have a lovely marriage. The sensual descriptions of their life together are just delicious, captured in short chapters that read like prose poems, and the scenes of passion are the best I’ve read in a long time.

As in the Anne Michaels book, Rebecca and Adam are expelled from their paradise, not hand in hand, but separately, taking divergent paths. There is mourning, yes, but also recognition that we would not be who were are without these griefs. And then there’s love.

Images from this book linger; some I will carry for a long time: a blue and gold tent, a view of rooftops in St. Ives. I’m glad I read it, in spite of the cover.

Shop Class as Soul Craft, by Matthew B. Crawford

The loss of blue-collar jobs in the U.S. has been widely documented, as more jobs have moved overseas or been eliminated due to automation. For decades, we have been told that the job market requires knowledge workers rather than skilled mechanics, machinists, plumbers, etc. Reacting to this trend, school systems across the country began in the 1970s to abolish shop classes in favor of increased classroom time.

Crawford musters arguments against this trend from many sources. Not only do some children learn better through working with their hands, but many blue-collar jobs have not, in fact, gone away. When your refrigerator stops working, a repair person from China or India is not going to show up at your house. When your car needs a new muffler, you are not going to take it to Indonesia for service.

What sets this book apart is that Crawford goes beyond these arguments to talk about his own experience as an electrician and a motorcycle mechanic. He describes the intrinsic rewards that working in such trades brings. For one thing, there is the self-confidence provided by a growing mastery of a skill few people can claim. For another, you don't need your self-esteem boosted, as so often happens in the classroom, by being rewarded based on some vague criteria that cannot be quantified. No, you get all the reward you and your pride need when that engine starts or the lights come on. The proof that you have done a good job is obvious for anyone to see.

Crawford persuasively makes the case that troubleshooting an engine takes as much if not more knowledge than cranking out a report on a computer. Also, diagnosing a mysterious ping in an engine or using a piece of wood with its own unique grain and flaws requires you to go outside yourself and pay attention to what the engine needs, what the wood needs. The narcissism rampant in our consumer culture will only get in your way here. You cannot make rules for how your car's engine will behave and expect that it will follow them. No. The engine follows its own rules. I was amused to learn the word “resistentialism”, the belief that machines are out to get you, but once you understand how a machine works, you can trace cause and effect, which relieves you of the need for such magical thinking.

There was a time when most everyone could do simple repairs. Owner's manuals had exploded views showing how to take things apart and put them back together. Crawford makes the point that by hiding from us how our cars and computers work, manufacturers leave us less in control of our lives and more like the automaton factory workers and complacent consumers envisioned by Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor and their successors. Crawford goes on to point out that even artificial intelligence and knowledge management efforts—meant to capture the knowledge of corporate experts and make it available to all—have the unintended consequence of making us mere cogs in the machine, with no expertise of our own.

These arguments all resonate with me. I learned to fix my first car, a 1966 VW bug, partly because it was cheaper to fix it myself, partly because I like knowing how things work, but mostly because I didn't want to be out on some highway far from home with two babies in the back and not know how to get us out of a jam, such as the Sunday night we got off the ferry from Martha's Vineyard, got in the car, and the brakes went right to the floor. I had a can of brake fluid in the trunk, and I knew what to do with it.

Unfortunately the book is marred by paragraphs full of ponderous academic prose. Much of it is almost unreadable, which is too bad because Crawford's arguments are good ones and important not just for educators, but also for parents who want their children to have the opportunity to live their best lives.