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the island of conclusions

Wolf Hall + Running + Downton Abbey 2x03

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Wolf Hall + Running + Downton Abbey 2x03

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Long post is long—sorry!

So, I listened to all 24 hours of Wolf Hall and I loved every minute of it. Mostly I listened in the car (I drive a lot—mostly 10-15 minute trips from pillar to post) but some while I was running.

(and so, strangely, the novel was good for my fitness level, between my new Vibram five fingers, which look like this:



And kind of make me resemble this:



But make running less painful for me than it ever has been before (though, sadly, no faster)—anyway, between the shoes and the narrative, I actually wanted to run!)

It’s a kind of strange experience to listen to narrative as you run, though. The novel has some very sad parts, and I happened to listen to those as I was running during the last heat of the summer. So there I was slogging along in my blue shoes, pouring sweat and crying. I’ve been listening to Regeneration for the past few days, and I’m sure my face is fixed in a permanent sympathetic grimace.

I’m an aural person at the best of times, and I think in some ways it’s easier for me to process and remember books I hear than books I read. Also, of course, listening is slower. So I found that I had a greater awareness of the novel’s technical achievements than I think I would have done if I’d read (all 600 pp. of) it.

Which of course my book group had not interest in talking about , so I’m just going to go on about it for a minute now, feel free to scroll by.



I was just blown away by Mantel’s ability to write a novel that long from such a tight third-person POV. A novel that long that establishes not only historical but global sweep. There may be some overview that aren’t in Cromwell’s POV (though I heard them as free indirect discourse) but everything else that happens he either witnesses, or hears about from someone else, or imagines.

It helps in this that both the historical Cromwell and Mantel’s seem to have an extraordinary ability to interpret and process information—steel-trap minds. And Mantel also endows hers with great imaginative powers. So the clarity of events isn’t compromised by seeing it all through his eyes. In fact, everything is so clear that it’s genuinely shocking to have an episode of disordered thinking/delirium late in the book—deprived of Cromwell’s clarity, you feel as adrift as he is.

Moreover, she makes the most of his having been brought up in the wool trade and among merchants. There’s a description (and usually a pricing out) of what everyone’s wearing in just about every scene—which is both a great character tic and a great way to give the reader lots and lots of visual detail.

There’s a great moment, for instance, when Cromwell is thinking about the information that Thomas More regularly scourges himself. Cromwell dismisses the practice, but then wonders how many people are kept in work by making scourges out of twigs, etc. And thinks maybe it’s worthwhile on the employment front.

Apparently, Mantel is writing a sequel that takes Cromwell to his historical end, but I’m not sure I can bear to read it—he’s so powerfully alive in this one.

Mantel also has a great facility with symbol—she’s able to pick up bits of historical trivia and turn them into both personal drama and a kind of meta-commentary on the process of making and recording history. There’s a wonderful leit motif in the book about memory practices/ memory machines, for instance.

I love historical novels (if you haven’t noticed!) and this one made me think about the ways in which historical fiction is like fan fiction: in both, you’re given a set of parameters, and have to think about fleshing out, or filling in, or thinking of plausible emotional explanations for those parameters.



So then I wrote a little Downton Abbey snippet last week about WWI war wounds. And that made me want to re-read Pat Barker’s Regeneration. But, things being as they are, that means re-listening. Anyway, the novel completely holds up (it came out in 1991), though I expect it wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice for what to listen to in the car. It may, however, have spoiled my enjoyment of Downton Abbey. Because really, talk about two different perspectives about what was going on in the north of England in 1916! In Regeneration, women in service are telling off their employers right and left and going to work in the munitions factories—just for example.



The tumblr!fans seem to have enjoyed last night’s episode, and I enjoyed the Anna/Bates stuff and the Mary/Matthew/Lavinia stuff myself (oh, and Edith!). But I found myself getting excessively irritated by Lord and Lady Grantham’s pissy-ness about turning Downton into a convalescent home. I mean, I get that they are aristocrats and used to having lots of space, but was I really supposed to sympathize with their discomfort when men who had managed to survive the trenches needed a place to recover? I think the episode wanted me to be a little annoyed at them—but I was hugely annoyed.

Also, I hated the way they dealt with the Lang storyline. Last week I thought they were setting up an interesting relationship between him and O’Brien (omg, the way she was the only one who would touch him after his nightmare?! that might have to be its own fic). But now they appear to have sent him packing (in much the same way Courtenay was sent off to the underworld). They seem happy to have little bits of war reality to intrude basically in the service of other plot lines. I expect Lang being let go was realistic, but I wanted a little more acknowledgement of how hard it would be for a shell-shocked veteran to survive, much less “recover” once he’d been turned out of his job. Also, wanted to buy Lang a ticket to Craiglockhart.

Maybe he’ll come back?

Ugh. Sorry, just had to get that off my chest. Hopefully I’ll go back to enjoying the series—I want to!

  • Yeah, it was a difficult DA episode. Lord and Lady Grantham's territoriality while everything's going to hell around them was very annoying and yet I suspect realistic. But Lang totally needs a ride to Craiglockhart, poor bastard.

    I really need to re-read Regeneration. When Branson was talking about being a CO I thought about what remember from the trilogy regarding COs, what a major big deal it was.

    Also, I don't remember if we ever talked about this--did you ever see the UK series Casualty 1906/1907/1909? It's not WWI, obviously, but it's set in a major hospital in a poor area of London and based on real hospital records and whatnot. It's *super* gritty and sad a lot of the time but awesome. I think I can hook you up with a DL if you want; it's nine eps all together I think.
    • Yeah, I expect it was realistic, too, I guess I was just hoping for a more critical attitude from the show itself towards them, or maybe even Robert to bond with the officers a bit, since he has served in a war (and is prancing about in uniform).

      I don't even know if Lang was an officer? So maybe he couldn't even have gone to Craiglockhart? Goodness knows what happened to unemployed enlisted men w/ shell shock (there was such a to-do in the last season about what Bates would do when he was almost dismissed for very similar reasons--I guess I just wanted more of that...)

      I was thinking about COs, too--weren't there hunger strikes, etc.?

      I haven't even heard of the series you mention--I must check it out -- is it set in 1906/1907/1909?

      Regeneration really holds up, 20 yrs later!
      • I haven't even heard of the series you mention--I must check it out -- is it set in 1906/1907/1909?

        Yes! I think it was aired in 2006/2007/2009 with the episodes set 100 years prior. The main focus is on the nurses, but the hospital is supposed to be pretty advanced for its day so we see things like early x-ray technology and experimental kinds of anesthesia. Meanwhile other things seem terribly backward. There is a soapy aspect to the show, with doctor/nurse romance and whatnot, but the medicine is supposed to be pretty accurate and they tackle a lot of social issues along the way.

        There's a (not very active) comme casualty1900s, and if you look in the tags you can find DLs that work AFAIK.
  • I *loved* Wolf Hall with a passion (although I read it because I'm a visual processor). Her Cromwell was just so vital and alive to me, and such a sympathetic character, unlike many of the depictions of him I've seen in drama and fiction over the years. So much that, like you, I'm not sure I can face reading her sequel.

    • I loved it too! So much more than I thought I would--it was such an interesting choice of a character to explore, and she did such a fantastic job of making him interesting and vital and moving, without ever really pretending he was a nice person, exactly.

      I'm not sure I can read the sequel, but I am curious about how she'll present his fall--Wolf Hall makes him such a consummate pragmatist it's hard to imagine how he'd trip up....
  • I was so sure that the moment Carson closed the door behind him Lang was going to shoot himself or something like that- perhaps because the dismissal was treated as too abrupt and... and... that'll show them, ya know?

    I'm starting to fall a bit for Branson. Very curious to see his reaction to the Tzar's fate.

    Did you see the preview?
    • I know--but they had a ridiculous abrupt veteran suicide last week--so they couldn't really do it again--or Downton would start getting a reputation as not a particularly place to convalesce, y'know?

      I think Lang's gone for good, having illustrated whatever it was he was supposed to illustrate.

      It was nice to get some actual historical detail from Branson--I hope this continues (and that he wins Sybil over with his knowledge of world affairs!)

      I did see the preview, and, well, what I think is going to happen is in my response to episode 2x01. We can expect the reappearance of the little stuffed dachshund, don't you think?

      Very much in support of your Sybil/Branson plans!
  • I'm so glad you liked Wolf Hall - I read it for my own book group a while ago, grumbling at the prospect (because I don't usually like historical novels) and absolutely loved it. exactly as you say: the third-person perspective (and for me the present tense as well) worked beautifully throughout. and she doesn't put things in just because she knows about them - in almost every case if a detail is there it's there for a reason. I liked what you said about meta-fiction and also about historical fiction as fan fiction.
    • she doesn't put things in just because she knows about them - in almost every case if a detail is there it's there for a reason.
      yes--this exactly! She really makes the texture of life in the sixteenth century come alive.

      I don't usually like present tense, but I thought it really worked in this case, because he was somebody who lived in the moment (and didn't have a stable place in the future to look back from) and because so much of the novel was told through memories.

      Cool that it was enjoyable to someone who doesn't like historical novels--I thought I might be a bit biased there--
  • I've been reading up on English Manor homes, and hundreds, or even a few thousand all were lost after the First World War and the Second, because they were commandeered for troops, and the homes and grounds were trashed, literally, to the point where the families could not afford to refurbish them so they were all torn down. (the gov. gave out very little in way of compensation) I believe they showed this in the first Brideshead Revisited miniseries - I wonder if they are going to put this in the show towards the end?
    • That's so interesting. It's sad about the manor houses, but it's hard to think what else the government would have done, though, given the huge number of men whose bodies had been destroyed by chemical weapons/ chemical burns and infections/bacterial disease in an era before penicillin. People needed months and months to recuperate without the drugs we have now. I expect, though I don't know, that it fueled the sense that the human and financial costs of the war far exceeded it's benefits (Downton doesn't really give a sense of the antiwar sentiments of the day).

      It's funny, but a similar issue came up in our discussion of Wolf Hall and the Reformation. From a cultural point of view, it's hard to see the Reformation as a bad thing--it eventually led to greater religious freedom and huge increases in literacy/education for ordinary people. From the standpoint of architectural history, of course, however, it's a tragedy that Henry VIII knocked down the cathedrals and monasteries.

      Brideshead takes place mostly between the wars. Perhaps you're thinking of the way Brideshead is being commandeered by troops for WWII in the frame narrative (when Charles "revisits" when he's in the army)?
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