Self-iso reading; Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’, and the return of Art History News.

This week, my 14 day self-isolation ended, and I was able to go back to work for the Council.  When I’d got back from work two weeks before, Zak told me his temperature was still going up and down, but otherwise he felt fine.  A bit achey, he said, but perhaps that was from all the coughing. So we isolated at once according to the protocol.  He is now absolutely fine, and if he was ill with his virus he was lucky enough to get it very mildly.  More than 4,000 have not been so lucky.  Every new development in this crisis is extraordinary for less than five minutes before we adjust, and it become almost normal.  But the number of people who have died is always shocking, and it’s why we’ve all taken to the new measures with a necessary fanaticism.  My brother sets a splendid example. He’s a keen cyclist but he’s given up his bike for the duration, even though cycling is still permitted by the government, because if he were in an accident he might take up precious NHS resources.  My sister-in-law is a doctor and her advice has been prescient and much-appreciated.

Equally prescient was the guy who sold me Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light when I stopped at Waterstone’s a while ago.

‘That’ll keep you busy in self-isolation,’ he said.  The book is so huge I wasn’t sure there’d be room in my rucksack. ‘Have you read the other two? Don’t be silly of course you have.’

‘Yes,’ I said. And to prove I had I said, ‘they’re brilliant.’ And because I was feeling particularly chatty I said, ‘Have you?’

No, he said. He didn’t read historical fiction.  I didn’t say, ‘I love it,  I’ve read all of Sharpe.’  I said, ‘I love the period.’

I don’t think he said, ‘Well that helps,’ but I said, ‘You’d think so. But it can be the opposite. What if they get it all wrong?  But she never does.’

And he agreed. Hilary Mantel does do incredible research.

It always niggles when a good story set in the past slips out of character.  Georgians standing in a landscape having their portraits painted.  A sub-Georgette Heyer where journalists had cameras in 1820.  Men wearing bag wigs in 1649 (Heretiks a horror released as The Convent and renamed without further success).  Nuns in England in 1649.  We only watched the first ten minutes.  It takes you out of the moment. Like being in the shower when someone turns the kitchen tap on.  From the get-go The Mirror and the Light is like being in the bath at exactly the right temperature. Then you discover there’s a jacuzzi button. She’s great literature, and two Booker prizes say so. But it’s the research that makes me actually grin when I read it.  I’ve unrolled sets of palace accounts, the lengthy parchment roll of workmen, and materials, design and cost.  I know what they feel like, how the sound, and how it plays like a film in your head as you read it. And Mantel does too. When Cromwell finds the King’s builders working in St James’s, and sends them off to have a pint while he confers with Chapuys, you can be sure that when the names he knows them by were the real builders’ names, written in the official medieval script by the Clerk of the Works, along with how much they’re to be paid.  Mantel is a delight, because she uses the sources as more than bones for her story.  You get the sense that she loves them as much as you do.  She invents in the gaps between the sources, and the spaces they can’t go, inside the character’s heads.  But she does so with the subtlety of breathing, without breaking the myriad steel threads of what really happened.

She’s also terrific on her painting. Gems like Cromwell commissioning a set of Kings and Queens – that would’ve been only the third corridor set in country.  He asks Holbein. But send your assistants, he says. Don’t paint it yourself.  Genius.  In real life we don’t know why Hobein changed the position of Henry’s head in the Whitehall Palace Mural, between the aloof three-quarter profile in the cartoon (at the NPG) and the staring bull of the finished painting.  But why shouldn’t it have been Cromwell’s idea?

I treasure the conversation at Waterstone’s because Zak pointed out it cost me £6.  Waterstone’s give a £5 discount off the cover price of £25. If I’d bought it on amazon it would’ve been £14.  Well I enjoyed it. It made me think. And I like supporting bookshops.  We’re the last people who’ll remember them.  ‘You see, we liked to smell books before we bought them.’ But when I got to the end of the book – no spoilers – there’s an Easter egg, Mantel’s essay Tudor Places.  This and the conversation together are well worth £6.  Sheer poetry about those places where the past and present seem to exist simultaneously.  Where the past is more vivid because the present is going on all around them.  Like a house at Mortlake where Cromwell’s uncle lived.

The riverside, the streets, have no surface trace of Cromwell, but (as if I’d never heard of tides) I was fascinated by how the murky water rose and lapped at the wheels of parked cars. My hostess said casually, as we walked back to her house, ‘Ship Lane has always been there.’ Her remark acted on me like a bolt of lightning, electrifying my narrative.’

In the Low Countries she says a guide told her to put her notebook away;

‘I will give you a book that will tell you everything you need to know’ I would as soon swallow my notebook as put it in my pocket.  If I could glue it to my hand, I would.

(c) Hilary Mantel 2020

Perhaps we’ve been watching too much of Ru Paul’s Drag Race but the phrase ‘You go girl!’ comes to mind.

Yesterday I heard that Art History News is posting again. This is fantastic news. For many years now, Bendor Grosvenor’s blog feels like art history’s drawing room.  It has been much-missed, and everyone is delighted that AHN is back.  Bendor and Adam Busiakiewicz, an outstanding art historian and lutenist, have just published an interesting new development for those of us following Philip Mould’s Art In Isolation series. The large portrait group of Eighteenth Century musicians, complete with dog named Boozy, has been identified.  Philip discovered that their names were painted above their heads, but where they were from was still a mystery.  Andy Craig a local historian from Gestingthorpe in Essex watched Philip’s programme and recognised it as a picture mentioned in a book about the parish from 1905.  What a brilliant discovery.  The picture and the sitters’ lives are now one great leap more complete.  AHN notes that it is very rare indeed to find a dulcimer being played in England at that date.  There’s a book of music on the table.  I’d love to know what it sounds like.


2 thoughts on “Self-iso reading; Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’, and the return of Art History News.

  1. Mantel is indeed a brilliant writer, this is undeniable. I’ve only read Wolf Hall. However in her essay on how royals are perceived she gave made some very pejorative comments about Kate. Also her two visits to Buckingham Palace and her comments about gazing at the Queen as though she, Mantel, were a cannibal on the first occasion and sitting on the floor counting the cocktail sticks on the next are bewildering.

    1. Very strange. I haven’t read them but I’ve heard about them. Well, I think the Dss of C is marvellous. She understands her role and her relationship with the public as well as anyone since May of Teck. Comments like that make Mantel an even more remarkable writer. She doesn’t shoehorn her modern views into the Sixteenth Century. Everyone in the book accepts monarchy as the natural state of man. Except some Millenarian sectaries offstage who believe they’re living in the last days and don’t believe in authority, or work, because the world’s about to end. No one in the book is on their side. Mantel doesn’t have anyone ask, ‘What if there were no King?’ For a moment Cromwell almost imagines replacing the King, before he buries the thought, but not doing away with Kingship. So I give her full marks for that. The only time you see through her writing to now, or the only time I could, was during an outbreak of fever, when the King can’t meet anyone who’s been coughing or sneezing, or anyone who’s been around anyone coughing and sneezing. But then the King’s household ordinances did state ‘No sick man may come nigh His Grace.’ The only time Mantel’s own views surface is in the ‘what happened to them afterwards’ section at the end of the book, after the story. She says that Richard Williams alias Cromwell’s great-grandson Oliver was ‘Lord Protector of the first British republic,’ but I forgive an author’s pipe-dream. ‘This isn’t Spain, Sir Thomas, this is England.’ That said, when I read your message I wondered about having books by a known republican on my shelves. In good times it would all be laughed away, if Mr Secretary came to dinner. But it would be first item on the indictment if I were in trouble. I wonder what Mantel made of the Queen’s broadcast last night. That showed exactly what monarchy does and why we need it, in a visceral way that leaves no trace in the archival record.

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