Tag Archives: Mantel

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Picador, New York, 2006 (First published in 1992)

Borrowed from the library.

If I were an author, I would want to write like Hilary Mantel.  After reading Wolf Hall I forced myself to hold off on reading her earlier novel,  A Place of Greater Safety, because I have many other books to read and the book is 700 plus pages long.  Then it showed up at the library and I couldn’t stop myself.

Not being a history major,  I don’t know how much of this novel is fact and how much is fiction.   Mantel has taken one of the most tumultuous times in French and European history and brought it to life through her characters.  No small task, her  cast of characters runs to over one hundred individuals.

The novel’s main focus is on three historic figures, Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, lawyers, journalists and revolutionaries.  Robespierre is the familiar to me because of  the Reign of Terror. I know a bit about Danton  because of the Gerard Depardieu film.  These historic figures, and their families, form the core of the novel and the other characters move among them in a dance both graceful and chaotic.  But the main force behind this time of violent change is the people of France and their need to survive.

Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next.  Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years.  Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a women of the capital will say: “Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread.  Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.  From page 27.

I love the way the big scenes play out, as if Mantel were standing in the crowd reporting the events.   Then, suddenly, I am in a character’s head, thinking their thoughts, feeling their fear.

Camille’s precipitate entry into history came about in this fashion.  He was standing in the doorway of the Cafe du Foy, hot, elated, slightly frightened by the pres of people.  Someone behind him said that he might try to address the crouds and so a table had been pushed into the cafe doorway.  For a moment he felt faint.  He leaned against this table, bodies hemming him in…
…He was now at a dizzying height above the crowd.  A fetid breeze drifted across the gardens.  Another fifteen seconds had passed.  He was able to identify certain faces, and suprise at this made him blink: ONE WORD, he thought.  There were the police, and there were their spies and informers, men who had been watching him for weeks, the colleagues and accomplices of the men who only a few days before had been cornered and beaten by the crowds and half-drowned in the fountains.  But now it is the killing time; there were armed men behind him.  In sheer fright, he began.  From pages 188/190.

There are also the women, wives, mothers, lovers,  strong in their thoughts and perceptions.  They know the men.

I thought, he talks like a man who has circumstances by the throat, but really he is making his calculations, he is carefully weighing the odds.  He has only once made a mistake — last summer, when we had to run away.  You will say, what was it, after all?  A few weeks skulking out of Paris, and then an amnesty, and things go on as before.  But picture me, that summer night at Fortenay, trying to keep my self control and put a good face on things, knowing that he is going to ngland and fearing he might never come back.  And it shows, doesn’t it, how much worse things can get when you think you’ve hit rock bottom?  Life has more complications in store than you can ever formulate or imagine.  There are many ways of losing a husband.  You can do it on several levels, the figurative and the actual.  I operate on all of them, it seems.  From pages 368/369.

I could go on quoting pages and pages. The novel is long, but moves rapidly.  The language is dense, astute, brilliant.  Filled with intrigues, petty grievances, terror and the politics of betrayal,  it covers events in European history that ushered in the modern age.  I loved it.


Filed under Hilary Mantel, Historical Fiction, Review

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2009

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

Borrowed from my local library.

This book will be on my top 10 list for 2010.  It may even be my favorite book of the year.  Wait, you ask, it is only the middle of January, how can you say that?  I say that because Mantel has created a world so full and rich that I didn’t want to leave it.  She has given me a place as vivid as the streets of my own city, as lively as my favorite café.  She has introduced me to characters that I want to talk to, that I wish to comfort and, sometimes, to scream at.

Of course, that is impossible, we are centuries and worlds apart.  After all, this is fiction.  Immersed in the history of early 16th century Britain, Mantel tells the story of one man, Thomas Cromwell.   With roots in the lower class, Cromwell, the son of a brewer and blacksmith, rises  to become a confidant to Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII.  Eventually Cromwell becomes the King’s chief minister  and the enemy of  Thomas More, staunch supporter of the Pope.  Henry, afraid of dying without a legitimate heir, wishes to annul his first marriage and marry another.  There are multiple threads of politics, sex and double-dealing and, of course, the King’s battle with the Catholic Church.  But this book is so much more than another fictionalized account of that time in history.

Wolf Hall is dense, dark and rich in a way that made me slow down my reading and savor every page.  What I really want to do here is quote many passages that leaped out at me but I will limit myself to a few.

An introduction to young Thomas Cromwell:

He is surprised.  Are there people in the world who are not cruel to their children?  For the first time the weight in his chest shifts a little; he thinks, there could be other places, better.  He talks; he tells them about Bella, and they look sorry, and they don’t say anything stupid like, you can get another dog.  He tells them about the Pegasus, and about his father’s brewhouse and how Walter gets fined for bad beer at least twice a year.  He tells them about how he gets fines for stealing wood, cutting down other peoples trees, and about the too-many sheep he runs on the commons…from page 12.

After he loses his wife to fever:

For a month he is at home: he reads.  He reads his Testament, but he knows what it says.  he reads Petrarch, whom he loves, reads how he defied the doctors: when they had given him up to fever he lived still, and when they came back in the morning, he was sitting up writing.  The poet never trusted any doctor after that; but Liz left him too fast for physician’s advice, good or bad, or for the apothecary with his cassia, his galingale, his wormwood, and his printed cards with prayers on.  From page 86

On viewing a carpet at Thomas More’s house:

It’s beautiful, he says, not wanting to spoil his pleasure.  But next time, he thinks, take me with you.  His hand skims the surface, rich and soft.  The flaw in the weave hardly matters.  A turkey carpet is not an oath.  There are some people in the world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins.  He is both these kinds of person.  He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight.  Leases, writs, statutes, all are written to be read, and each person reads them by the light of self-interest.  More says, “What do you think, gentlemen?  Walk on it, or hang it on the wall?”

“Walk on it.”

“Thomas, your luxurious tastes!”  And they laugh.  You would think they were friends.  From pages 187/188.

Cromwell observing King Henry:

You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing.  Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more.  Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade.  Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move.  If he had been called to a lower station in live, he could have been a traveling player, and leader of his troupe.  From page 357

Mantel places Cromwell in the third person and some readers find this difficult.  It did not really bother me.  I rather enjoy the rhythm of shifting from Cromwell’s thoughts to observing him from some close vantage point. The only part I found awkward was trying to keep track of the different Royal lineages, and Mantel, or her editors, have graciously placed a list of characters and the Tudor and Yorkist family trees at the front of the book.

I find it hard to say more about Wolf Hall.  I really love Mantel’s style, her intelligence, and her trust in my abilities as a reader.  I will read this book again.

Other reviews:

As usual, I Need More Bookshelves


Boston Bibliophile

Fleur Fisher Reads

Savidge Reads

Did I miss yours?


Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Booker, Challenges2010, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Notable Books