The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel

Having finished Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy last year, I knew I wanted to read more of her books. A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution, has always sounded appealing to me but the length is off-putting, so I decided to try a shorter one first.

The Giant, O’Brien, published in 1998, is based on the true story of the 18th century Irish giant, Charles Byrne. Also known as Charles O’Brien and claiming descent from the High Kings, but usually referred to by Mantel as simply ‘the Giant’, Byrne and his friends leave Ireland in 1782, fleeing ‘cyclical deprivation, linguistic oppression and cultural decline.’ The Giant has previously been able to make a living by entertaining his neighbours with stories and songs but, sensing that things are changing, he knows he needs to find a new way to earn money. The solution seems obvious, so after arriving in London with his entourage, the Giant appoints the unscrupulous Joe Vance as his agent and agrees to exhibit himself as a freak, to be stared at, pointed at, poked and prodded, in return for money.

The story of another man unfolds in parallel with the Giant’s. His name is John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon and anatomist – like Charles Byrne, a real historical figure. Mantel describes Hunter’s early years in Long Calderwood and how he came to be in London, first as an assistant to his brother William, another famous anatomist, and then on his own, conducting autopsies in the name of scientific research. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, it was very difficult to obtain bodies for medical study in the UK, a problem which led to body snatching and the illegal digging up of graves. In one fascinating, if slightly gruesome scene, Hunter lectures a group of newly recruited body snatchers on the best ways to get hold of fresh corpses without being detected. Naturally, the bodies of most interest to Hunter are those that are unusual in some way – so when he hears news of the Giant currently being exhibited in London, he decides to make him an offer, despite the fact that the Giant is not yet dead.

Mantel portrays the Giant as a gentle, intelligent man with a natural gift for telling stories and a seemingly endless knowledge of myth, folklore and fairy tales. This, as much as his height, makes him stand out from his friends. While the others succumb to London’s temptations – alcohol, women and gambling – the Giant saves his money in the hope of one day rebuilding Mulroney’s tavern, now a ruin but once the place where ‘Courts of Poetry’ were held and he was taught the art of storytelling. John Hunter, in contrast, is much less likeable; if the Giant represents tradition and a way of life that is about to be lost forever, Hunter represents progress and advancement and is portrayed as clever, ambitious and lacking in empathy.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Mantel explains which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional. There’s more factual information available on John Hunter than there is on the life of Charles Byrne, but what we do know about Byrne is that he suffered from gigantism caused by pituitary tumours, his height was 7ft 7 (2.31m) and his skeleton has been on display in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons for over two centuries, despite his own wishes to be buried at sea. The museum has been closed since 2017 for renovations and the future of Charles Byrne’s remains is the subject of an ethical debate.

I found both the Giant and John Hunter interesting to read about, particularly as I previously knew nothing at all about either of them, but I thought the book seemed slightly disjointed because of the way it kept switching between the two narratives. Until they began to converge very near the end, the two storylines felt completely separate and unconnected; I suppose Mantel’s aim was to show the contrast between the main characters and the different paths they followed through life, but I felt it didn’t flow very well as a novel. I also didn’t find the eighteenth century London setting as immersive as the Tudor world she creates in the Wolf Hall books. Still, there are some fascinating ideas in this novel and the Giant O’Brien himself is a character I won’t forget in a hurry!

This is book 1/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

At last! I bought this book shortly after its release in March 2020 with every intention of reading it then, but with the start of the pandemic and our first lockdown, I got distracted and had to put it aside until I was able to give it the attention it deserved. After that, there always seemed to be other books that needed to be read first or that seemed more immediately appealing, so The Mirror and the Light has been languishing on the shelf until I decided to put it on this year’s 20 Books of Summer list.

The Mirror and the Light is, of course, the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, completing the story begun in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. At almost 900 pages in my edition, it’s also the longest of the three books. It covers a relatively short period of time, from May 1536 to July 1540, which shows how much detail the book goes into. If you’re looking for a completely immersive reading experience, this is it – and for that reason, I would strongly recommend starting with the first book and reading the trilogy in order.

The novel opens in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s beheading. Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, has achieved what he set out to achieve – Anne, who has failed to give the king a male heir, is gone; the four men he believes to have insulted his old master and mentor, Thomas Wolsey, have also been executed; and Jane Seymour, formerly of Wolf Hall, has taken Anne’s place as Henry’s new queen. Cromwell, now Lord Privy Seal, has risen high in the king’s favour, but there is still more work to be done: there are foreign ambassadors to deal with, tensions between various court factions to navigate, conspiracies to stamp out, more marriages to arrange, and the moods of an increasingly temperamental and unpredictable Henry VIII to handle.

We servants of the king must get used to games we cannot win but fight to an exhausted draw, their rules unexplained. Our instructions are full of snares and traps, which mean as we gain we lose. We do not know how to proceed from minute to minute, yet somehow we do, and another night falls on us in Greenwich, at Hampton Court, at Whitehall.

Then, disaster strikes again. Jane Seymour dies, just days after giving birth to Henry’s long-awaited legitimate male heir. Cromwell will have to find yet another new wife for the king, but one mistake could give his rivals all the ammunition they need to bring about his downfall. History tells us what will happen next and Mantel follows the history very closely as she has done from the beginning; we know how the story will end and so there is no real suspense – but there is still plenty of tension and a sense of foreboding as things begin to go wrong for Cromwell and the book heads towards its inevitable conclusion.

This book is as exquisitely written as the previous two books in the trilogy, but of the three I think I enjoyed this one the least. I seem to have said this about a lot of books recently, but I don’t think it really needed to be quite so long. The middle book, Bring Up the Bodies, was the one that worked best for me, precisely because it was shorter and more tightly focused (on the demise of Anne Boleyn). The Mirror and the Light kept me gripped at the beginning and the end, but there were times in the middle when the pace felt so slow I found myself struggling to concentrate. Maybe Hilary Mantel couldn’t bear to say goodbye to Cromwell and wanted to delay the moment for as long as possible! If so, I don’t blame her because that moment when it comes is as moving and poignant as you would expect.

Although I was expecting Cromwell’s fall from grace, I was still surprised by how quickly and suddenly it happened. One minute we hear that he has been made Earl of Essex by the king, then literally just a few pages later he is being arrested and taken to the Tower of London. What makes it so sad is that Cromwell himself is not really surprised at all. He has known all along how precarious his position is at court in a world where life and death can depend on the whim of one man – Henry VIII, “the mirror and the light of all other kings and princes in Christendom”.

Now that I’ve finished this book, I’m looking forward to reading A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel.

This is book 15/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 44/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies This is the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second in a planned trilogy of novels telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.

While Wolf Hall was concerned with Cromwell’s rise to power, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and the process that led to Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, in Bring up the Bodies the King has grown dissatisfied with his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who has failed to give him a male heir, and he is now turning his attentions to Jane Seymour. Beginning in 1535, just after Wolf Hall ends, this book follows Cromwell as he attempts to find a solution to Henry’s problem. It’s not an easy task but Cromwell has already proven himself to be an expert at negotiating complex political situations and getting what he wants, while also trying to do what he believes is best for the King and for England.

I think most of us probably know what happened to Anne Boleyn and what her eventual fate would be, so I won’t say much more about the plot of this book. But although I’ve read about Anne Boleyn’s downfall many times before, I have never read about it from this perspective or in so much detail. By allowing us to follow events through Cromwell’s eyes, Mantel makes what to many of us is a familiar story feel like a fresh and interesting one – and in a world already filled with Tudor novels this is a real accomplishment!

I was intrigued by the suggestion that Cromwell had his own motives for plotting the demise of Anne and the men who were brought down with her. I don’t suppose we can ever know what thoughts were really going through Cromwell’s mind or what made him act the way he did, but Mantel’s theory was interesting. As in the previous book, Cromwell is a fascinating character and portrayed as neither a hero nor a villain. He’s ruthless, clever, ambitious and (in this book, at least) vengeful, but away from the court and the world of politics, we are shown a more human side to him. Through his relationship with his son, Gregory, and through his frequent memories of his wife and two daughters and his mentor Thomas Wolsey, who are all now dead, we see that he is also a man who loves his family and is loyal to his friends.

You could probably read Bring up the Bodies without having read Wolf Hall first, especially if you already have a good knowledge of Tudor history, but I would still recommend reading Wolf Hall before starting this one. It’s not completely necessary but will help you to understand Cromwell’s personality and how his mind works. You will also be introduced to the members of Cromwell’s large household (made up of extended family, servants and employees) and the other secondary characters who appear in this book.

Mantel’s novels are not easy reads but I did find this book much easier to read than Wolf Hall, maybe because I knew what to expect from her writing style this time. One criticism that I and many other readers had of Wolf Hall was regarding Mantel’s use of the pronoun ‘he’ without making it obvious who ‘he’ refers to. It was usually safe to assume that ‘he’ was Cromwell but it could still be confusing, especially when there were a lot of male characters in the same scene. In this book, Mantel still uses ‘he’ but sometimes clarifies it by adding ‘he, Cromwell’ which makes things easier to follow. I also found this a much quicker read than Wolf Hall, as it’s not as long and is faster paced and more focused on one subject – the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Now that I’ve caught up with the first two books in the trilogy, I can join those of you who are patiently (or maybe impatiently) awaiting the third one!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall The year is 1500 and in the London suburb of Putney, young Thomas Cromwell lies on the ground being kicked by his father, who is drunk. Thomas recovers from the beating this time, but he knows he needs to get away from Putney before it happens again and so he runs away to sea. After returning to England several years later, Cromwell enters the service of the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, and begins to play an increasingly important political role. Wolf Hall follows Cromwell as he rises in power to become Henry VIII’s chief minister and helps to negotiate the King’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

This is one of those books I have thought about reading many times over the last few years but have never got around to actually doing it despite its popularity and Booker Prize success. Joining a readalong in the summer gave me the motivation to read it at last and although I didn’t keep up with the readalong schedule after the first couple of weeks I did still finish the book and am pleased to be able to say that I enjoyed it.

I didn’t know much about Cromwell before reading this book, but he has appeared as a secondary character in other historical novels I’ve read and he has always been portrayed very negatively – ruthless, cold and calculating. The famous portrait by Hans Holbein (shown below) does nothing to dispel this image! And so it was good to read a novel that showed Cromwell not as a villain (if anyone is portrayed as a villain in this book it’s actually Thomas More) but as an intelligent, charismatic, complex human being with both positive and negative qualities. Something that really comes across strongly is how well Cromwell has done to rise above his unhappy childhood and humble origins as the son of a blacksmith to become a confident, accomplished man people turn to for advice and leadership – one of the most powerful men in England. But while it was fascinating to read about the important historical events of the period and the political machinations that were going on behind the scenes, I also loved reading about Cromwell’s life at home. As well as his wife and children, Cromwell’s household expands over the years to include an assortment of other family members, servants, wards and employees and in Cromwell’s interactions with all of these people we see another side of his character: a kinder, more compassionate side.

Thomas CromwellMantel’s writing is descriptive without being flowery and she really brings her Tudor world to life. Every little piece of information she gives us, however trivial it may seem, helps to slowly build a full and vivid picture of daily 16th century life – what people ate, how they dressed, the books they read and the games they played. To say the book was well-researched would be an understatement – I couldn’t believe how incredibly detailed it was! As someone who has read a lot of Tudor novels I’m already familiar with this period and many of the historical figures who appear in Wolf Hall and I found this to be an advantage, as Mantel assumes the reader has at least some knowledge of the period. If it’s been a while since you’ve read anything about the Tudors, it might be a good idea to remind yourself of some of the historical facts surrounding Henry VIII’s divorce, marriage to Anne Boleyn and the resulting separation from Rome before you start reading.

Before I read this book I had heard a lot about Mantel’s excessive use of pronouns – specifically, the word ‘he’ being used without making it clear who ‘he’ was. I quickly discovered that it was usually safe to assume that ‘he’ was Cromwell but ‘he’ was also frequently used to refer to two or three other people who were taking part in the same conversation, which could sometimes cause confusion. The dialogue itself is modern enough to be easy to understand without feeling too inappropriate, though sometimes Mantel uses quotation marks to indicate speech and sometimes she doesn’t, leaving you to decide whether a character is speaking or just thinking. As I’m not usually a fan of experimental or quirky writing styles this was one of the reasons I had resisted reading this book for such a long time, but it actually didn’t bother me as much as I thought it might. It didn’t stop me from enjoying the book and I wish I hadn’t let it put me off.

I’m now looking forward to reading Bring up the Bodies, hopefully before the final book in the trilogy is released!

Wolf Hall Readalong: Week 1

During August and September I am taking part in a readalong of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell. The readalong is hosted by Michelle of The True Book Addict and Kai of Fiction State of Mind. This week we have been reading Part One, which consists of three chapters.

Here are my answers to this week’s discussion questions:

1) What prompted you to join this read-a-long?

As an avid reader of historical fiction I should probably have read this book before now, but for some reason, despite its success and popularity, I never got around to reading it. Now that the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, has been released and getting so much praise and attention too, it seemed like the perfect time to finally read Wolf Hall, and when I saw that there was going to be a readalong it helped motivate me to actually pick the book up and start reading. I also like the way this readalong is structured and hopefully I won’t have any problems keeping up with the schedule!

2) What do you think of Thomas so far?

I don’t feel that I know Thomas Cromwell very well yet, but as I’ve still only read the first three chapters I’m sure I’ll get to know and understand him better as I read on. However, each of these first three chapters has given us an insight into a different side of Thomas’s character. In the first, we get a glimpse of what appears to have been a very unhappy childhood, living with a cruel and abusive father. In the second, we meet Thomas again as an adult and we are shown his public persona, the part he is playing in the politics of the country, and his interactions with other important historical figures such as Stephen Gardiner and Cardinal Wolsey. And in the third we see Thomas in his role as a husband and father.

3) What do you think about Thomas’s feelings towards his son Gregory? Do you think he is too indulgent? Do you think his treatment of Gregory now will affect Gregory’s future?

I think it’s a good thing that Thomas is trying to avoid treating Gregory the way his own father treated him. This quote gives us a good idea of his feelings on this subject:

Bawling, strong, one hour old, plucked from the cradle: he kissed the infant’s fluffy skull and said, I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me. For what’s the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?

I don’t think Thomas is being too indulgent, but it’s too early to say at this point in the novel what effect his treatment of Gregory will have on Gregory’s future.

See Kai’s post for other participants’ thoughts on Part 1 of Wolf Hall.