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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wolf at the Door

Both blogging and reading have taken a back seat recently, mainly because I've been doing a lot of work on the third novel in the 'Journals of Matthew Quinton', namely The Blast That Tears the Skies. However, I'm finally reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall; long overdue, I know, but most of the things on the 'to read' list are now long overdue! It's a stunning piece of writing and a deceptively easy read. I've read very few Booker winners/nominees over the years, mainly because I suppose I have a deep-seated aversion to the overhyped, but this is clearly a thoroughly well deserved winner of the prize (and it's good to see an out-and-out historical novel gaining such recognition!). Several critics have commented on her success in recreating an entire world, and I'd concur with that. In that sense, it resembles Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels; the attention to detail is so breathtaking that one actually overlooks it, simply because you're drawn totally and seamlessly into this alternative world that the writer has created. Mantel's grasp of some very complex history is pretty much flawless, too, although her Thomas Cromwell (and to a lesser extent her Wolsey) is probably rather too sympathetic when compared with the original. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Mantel's technique is the decision she took about language, namely to make it unashamedly 'modern'. This works well, although purists might quibble about some aspects of it, notably the comparative lack of deference in the way that those of lower rank address those of higher status. I'd also have preferred religion to be a little more central to the motivation and thought processes of her characters, as it undoubtedly was to the real people whom she is recreating, but that would probably have been the kiss of death in terms of winning the Booker Prize! I'm still a way off finishing Wolf Hall, but when I eventually do, I'll have a real dilemma in terms of the rest of the vast 'to read' list: what on earth can I pick up that will be able to follow a book this good?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Painting History

I recently went to the National Gallery's Delaroche exhibition, centred on his famous painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey. This proved to be particularly thought-provoking on several levels. It said much about the perception of art in different times: Delaroche's almost photographic realism became deeply unfashionable in the post-Impressionist era, and is still probably frowned upon in the more right-on metropolitan galleries. The exhibition also suggests that the educated and artistic classes of the nineteenth century had a rather wider interest in, and deeper knowledge of, the history of neighbouring countries than is often the case today. It's difficult to imagine many French artists today drawing inspiration from British history, and the less said about British ignorance of European history, the better (witness the recent faux-pas by a Prime Minister with a PhD in History, namely muddling the Bourbons and Habsburgs as the subjects of the famous quip about having learned nothing and forgotten nothing.)

Above all, though, the Delaroche exhibition provides some fascinating insights into the way in which 'history' is all about image creation, and the images produced in different genres have a way of feeding off each other. Thus Delaroche's equally famous painting of 'the Princes in the Tower' was based upon Shakespeare's account of their deaths in 'Richard III'; in turn, Delaroche inspired a host of imitators, influenced portrayals of the scene on film, and still shapes many people's mental image of the fate of the princes. Many of my earliest impressions of historical events were shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by John Kenney's illustrations of L Du Garde Peach's Ladybird books, and I belong to the generation that can't think of Elizabeth I without thinking of Glenda Jackson, or of Henry VIII without thinking of Keith Michell. (Pity the younger generations whose mental images of that monarch have been shaped by the mind-numbing The Tudors...) Having started out as an academic historian, I'm particularly conscious of the potential dangers of such image-making when writing fiction. For example, my portrayal of Charles II in Gentleman Captain is based on my reading of all the major biographies of the king, of many of his own notes and letters, and of the contemporary accounts of many of those who knew him - but I also know that somewhere at the back of my mind are the countless screen portrayals by the likes of George Sanders, James Villiers (in The First Churchills), Sam Neill (in Restoration) and Rupert Everett (but certainly not the risible portrayal of the king by John Malkovich in The Libertine). So Delaroche is part of a long and respectable tradition of shaping our perception of historical figures through different forms of art and media; but he also provides proof of the insidious power of such image making. After all, who can look at his 'Lady Jane Grey' without implicitly making the connections 'Jane = Innocent', 'Protestant = Good', 'Mary Tudor = Catholic = Bad'?