The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I finished The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel this afternoon, so that took me eight days to read the 882 pages, I could have been faster, but I savoured every word. This last book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy was well worth waiting for, but I can hardly believe that it has been eight years since Bring Up the Bodies was published. I don’t go in for much in the way of re-reading but I intend to read the whole trilogy again at some point in the future.

If you’re at all interested in the history of the Tudors then you obviously know how this story ends, but despite that 874 pages before Cromwell’s execution are still a riveting read and from about half-way through I slowed down my reading, not wanting the book to finish and at the end I felt quite bereft, knowing that I was going to miss being in Cromwell’s company.

Well, none of us is perfect and he had a lot of flaws, but given the circumstances he could have been an awful lot worse than he was and in the end it was his lack of brutality and cruelty to others at Henry’s court that brought his downfall.

Cromwell had always been able to see that given Henry’s nature the possibility of swiftly falling out of the king’s favour was almost inevitable, he could have sailed to Italy or some other European country with some of his wealth, but he left it too late as he loved being at the centre of power.

Throughout the book Cromwell thinks back to scenes in his life from his childhood on, replaying the abuses that he had to put up with from his blacksmith father Walter, and his life in Italy as a young man, the loss of his wife and daughters and before that the loss of his ‘Anselma’, for me this had the effect of a man drowning and seeing his past life playing out in front of him. He could clearly see where he had gone wrong, what he should have done differently in his incredible career but at the time he didn’t think he could do anything different. In reality though he knew that if Henry wanted rid of someone it was going to happen, there was no getting away from it.

I was really glad that Hilary Mantel wrote three and a half pages of author’s notes explaining what had happened to many of the other characters in the book, as it saved me from having to look them all up. She explained that she had been given encouragement from many historians, academics, curators and actors over the years which had included many distinguished names but had decided not to compile a list of acknowledgments. She thought that it would be like a vulgar exercise in name-dropping. I think that’s a bit of a shame as I imagine that if I had been one of those people I would have been expecting such an acknowledgement, and as a reader I would have been interested to know who had contributed help over the years.

Anyway, I suspect that this one will also win the Booker, it’s a great read.

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Kate Saunders of The Times says on the front of Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir ‘If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone’ So there you go, I have a heart of stone, in fact I’m as hard as nails – did I tell you I come from Glasgow?

Anyway, I knew the story of Lady Jane Grey so nothing was a surprise and for me that was the problem with this book, I think if you don’t know much about the subject then this is the book for you. I knew most of the history involved, if not all and I found the massive info dumps annoying.

The tale is told from several different characters’ perspectives and I don’t think that that was well done as they all had much the same voice as far as I was concerned’ which is definitely not something that happens with real people.

It is about one of the most tragic occurrences in English history, a young girl used and abused by the very people who should have nurtured and loved her most. That they only saw Jane as an object for their own advancement was shameful but probably not that surprising to the people around them at the time. In fact if you have a look at the news reports there are plenty of abusive parents around now.

That’s probably me being a right grumpy besom but I think for some reason I have a problem with Alison Weir as a fiction writer, I intend to have a go at one of her straight history books as I think I might prefer those. I see that her history books veer mainly towards the Tudor period, I fancy trying her Eleanor of Aquitane, but the question is – will she be as good a historian as Antonia Fraser? No doubt I’ll find out. Have you read any of her non-fiction books?

Mary Boleyn – The Great and Infamous Whore

I haven’t read anything by Alison Weir before and I had been under the impression that she only wrote fiction so I was surprised to find Mary Boleyn – The Great and Infamous Whore in the history section at one of my local libraries. Interestingly this book seems to be subtitled The Mistress of Kings on Goodreads, maybe that was for American sensibilties!

Anyway, when I saw this book sitting on the library shelf I immediately wondered if there really was that much known about Mary Boleyn – enough to fill a book, and now that I’ve read the book I can tell you that indeed there is very little known about Mary Boleyn at all.

This book is full of question marks. Pages and pages are devoted to the fact that it isn’t even known which year she was born or even if she was the eldest of the Boleyn daughters or if Anne was. These pages all point out that previous writers have stated facts which couldn’t be correct. I’m afraid I almost gave up, so annoyed was I with it, after all it is really an irrelevance – whether Mary or Anne was the eldest daughter. Although I reckon that any psychologist would tell you that Anne displayed all the classic qualities/faults of a middle child. She wanted to be the centre of everyone’s world. Mary seems to have been disliked by both of her parents, I think by her father because she resembled her mother’s side of the family – the Howards. And probably disliked by her mother because her husband Thomas Boleyn blamed his wife for Mary being a disappointment, she wasn’t a manipulative schemer and that was really what he admired in people, Mary didn’t do anything to help promote her family’s position.

I did plough on to the end and the book does throw up interesting facts about Tudor life which I didn’t know about – such as: that sweating sickness which seemed to be so rife was not the plague as I have previously read. It seems to have been an illness which must have mutated over the years until it was no longer the killer it had been. At the height of its strength it could kill people within a couple of hours of the victim feeling ill. It sounds like a very virulent flu to me.

Inevitably sister Anne makes an appearance in the book and as ever I was struck by how patient Henry VIII had been, I think Anne should have counted herself lucky not to have got the chop a lot sooner than she did, such as immediately after Henry realised that she wasn’t the innocent virgin she had been making herself out to be in the six years or so that she had been holding him at bay!

If you just want to immerse yourself in things Tudor while you wait for the next instalment of Wolf Hall coming around you might enjoy this book, but at the end of it you won’t be much the wiser about Mary Boleyn’s life, although she was much maligned by the sound of things as she doesn’t seem to have been any more promiscuous than the rest of them.

Have any of you read any of Alison Weir’s fiction books and if so what did you think of them?

Bess of Hardwick by Mary S. Lovell

It’s inevitable when you travel around visiting different places that your list of books to read gets ever longer as you want to find out more about the locations and the characters of those who peopled them originally. A visit to Chatsworth had me re-reading Mitford books and finding new ones to get stuck into. You can read my Chatsworth related posts here.

So a visit to Hardwick Hall in the summer led me to want to find out more about Bess. Look no further if you have the same inclination because this book is everything which you could want. It not only gives amazing details of Bess’s life but adds in fascinating details of Tudor life.

The author discovered that her husband’s family had descended from one of Bess’s husbands, but it was at the suggestion of Deborah Devonshire that she took on the task of writing a new Bess biography. It seems that previous biographers had been a bit slap-dash and lackadaisical and just plain wrong about details. The trouble was that there is so much archive material to look through that it was difficult to decide what should be written about and what kept out. Bess was so organised about money that she seems to have recorded every penny which ever came into her possession. It’s not that she was mean – she was actually amazingly generous and the sums of money she was distributing to people were enormous, but she obviously liked to be in control of her money and the doling out of it. I learned that an Angel was a gold coin which is apparently why some pubs are called The Angel. Bess often gave them to children.

I hadn’t realised before that there was what was the equivalent of an internship system in operation for well off families. Youngsters would be sent off to live with a family higher up the social scale from them, the idea being that they would learn how to get on with new people and experiences which would benefit all concerned, it was a sort of finishing school for them.

I was outraged to discover that The Office of Wards, a sort of Tudor version of the Inland Revenue, took over the running and profits of an estate if the landowner died leaving an heir who had not yet reached his 21st birthday. All the income and profits went to the Crown meaning that the widow of the landowner and his children were left in dire straits financially.

Best of all though, I discovered that Bess had been maligned by historians over the years, probably because she dared to be a successful woman in what was very much a man’s world. I really liked her and I’m glad she had a passion for building and tapestries which can still be seen. She was a great housekeeper as well as a great businesswoman and she was obviously keen on the company of the wee ones of the household. It must have been heartbreaking that the children died so frequently and suddenly, I suspect that it was all for the want of a spoonful of Calpol or some such medication to bring down a fever. If you’re a parent, just think of all the times you’ve given your children something like that for teething or an ear infection, in Tudor times they just died.

It’s impossible to know exactly what her personality would have been like but I think that as she wasn’t exactly a beauty but she was still very popular with men, then she must have had a good sense of humour and been smiley and light-hearted. That always attracts men, but it usually goes along with a fiery and feisty temperament which confuses them. I did feel sorry for Bess’s last husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, as he was stuck in between two such women, who just happen to have been redheads – and then there was Mary, Queen of Scots who was foisted on him for 14 years or so. Shrewsbury should have been proud of himself though as he managed to stop Mary from escaping, no mean feat as she had managed to escape from so many places before, including Dumbarton Castle, on the top left of my header – and an island in the middle of Loch Leven. Mary wrecked the Shrewsbury marriage though, I know I’m rambling but – I had always been told that Mary Stuart was also a redhead but according to this book she had dark hair but sometimes wore a red wig.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in this era in history I recommmend you read Bess of Hardwick. It’s very readable history.

So ignorant was I of all this that I didn’t even realise there was an Old Hardwick Hall before I got there. Walking along the path to the ‘new’ hall, we were waylaid by the old one. We just had to visit it too so here are some photos of it.

Hardwick Hall from the old hall.

old and new Hardwick Hall

A view from one of Old Hardwick Hall’s windows.

interior old Hardwick Hall 2

Derbyshire from the Old Hall.

old Hardwick Hall, view

The decorative plasterwork above a fireplace of Old Hardwick Hall.

interior old Hardwick Hall 1

Old Hardwick Hall from the garden.

old Hardwick Hall from garden

Old Hardwick Hall.

old Hardwick Hall

It was a lovely day out, sadly I couldn’t capture a photo of the many birds which were darting around us, I think they were swifts, and they were nesting all over the old hall. It was quite a magical experience. If you’re anywhere near Derbyshire make time to visit Hardwick and Chatsworth.