Monday, October 5, 2020


So goes the cheerful old musical hall song. But author Hilary Mantel must surely have had the current American president in mind as she wrote the third part of her Wolf Hall trilogy, "The Mirror and the Light." As she portrays him in this lengthy but compelling read, Henry VIII is vain, petty, vengeful, promiscuous, self-indulgent, oblivious to those around him, manipulative, domineering--the complete

narcissistic sociopath. He is overweight, unable to control his appetite, and infamous, of course, for his serial marriages. He expects unquestioning loyalty from everyone, but is capable of none himself. He craves power, but only for his self-aggrandizement and the expansion of his realm of influence. The only difference between Mantel's Henry and our Trump is the authority to literally chop off heads at whim, where Trump can only "fire" those who incur his displeasure.

That said, King Henry is not the protagonist of Mantel's trilogy. That would be Thomas Cromwell, his marriage broker, his consigliere Michael Cohen, his factotum Attorney General Barr, his Secretary of State Pompeo, his Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, his Defense Secretary Mark Esper--all rolled into one. Cromwell is of common birth, which leaves him in a weak position with the contemptuous (and contemptible!) nobility. By hook and crook--and often the latter--he has ascended to his lofty position by guile, by manipulation, by abject, if easily shifted loyalty. We like him perhaps in part because of the vulnerability that lies just below the surface of his smooth self-confidence. We always know that he is doomed: one thing we know for sure about Henry is that he eventually turns on everyone he once trusted, and Cromwell is no exception. He knows it himself. We like him also because we admire his smarts, his uncanny ability to navigate the court intrigue, and at heart a kind of wisdom, even a kind of compassion for humanity that virtually all others lack. 

The great historical background of the book is the tenuous relationship between England, France and Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. In part it is the then intense struggle between religious faiths--the "papism" of the entrenched Roman Catholic tradition and the growing independence, under Henry, of what will become the Anglo-Catholic church. Henry dissolved the monasteries and convents, freely looted what had been church property and wealth for his own enrichment, persecuted (tortured, killed) those who remained adamantly loyal to the Pope, and gathered the power of the church into monarchical hands. Still, Protestantism, as practiced by the followers of Luther in Germany and the Lowlands, was considered heresy, punishable by public burning at the stake.

The bigger picture, then, is a constant, sometimes bewildering chess game between monarchs and their teams of duplicitous diplomats, in which women, potential queens, are essentially nothing more than pawns to be exchanged for political advantage. They are expected to be the providers of succession in the form of sons, and are spurned and cast aside if they fail to perform that function. Otherwise, they are treated and spoken of with contempt, or treated as convenient chattels or whores by men, no matter what their social station. It was, it seems, a bleak world for the female gender. Some might argue that it has not greatly improved; and most would agree that it took too long to make progress. Mantel does us a fine, if uncomfortable service, in reminding us of these truths about the historical hegemony of men.

Were the times as bad as Mantel would have us believe? She nothing if not convincing in her depiction of the casual torture, the beheadings, the disembowelments, the hangings, the burnings at the stake. If there's a take-away, it's a moral condemnation of barbarity and a recommitment to a more compassionate regard for all humanity. The history of this country of my birth has little to recommend it, but at least in Mantel's hands it gets to be an excellent read.


Marie Smith said...

Someone we see on the news these days wouldn’t mind being the king of the U.S. There is much to be learned from history.

Dr Michelle Frantom (aka Dr Grafix aka Munted Doll) said...

I've often been very grateful that I was born in the 20th Century. It was still very sexist then but it did get better and even with all the inequity that still exists, is so much better than in Henry's day. If I'd been born in his era I probably would have been burnt at the stake.

Even so, I believe we have learnt nothing from history. In a growing climate of 'might is right', things are going backwards for women again.

Peter Clothier said...

I myself believe that women are stronger than you suggest in that last observation, Michelle. True, the most insecure of men are clinging desperately to their hegemony. The signs of that are everywhere. But those men, it seems to me, are not strong, but weak. It will not be long before women, and those of us who support their struggle for equality, will prevail.

Dr Michelle Frantom (aka Dr Grafix aka Munted Doll) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Michelle Frantom (aka Dr Grafix aka Munted Doll) said...

Peter if you can be bothered reading this here's a Guardian article that lays it down clearly.

'The prime minister, Scott Morrison, is angry with women. Not all of us, just those making a fuss about the woeful lack of attention to women’s workforce participation, economic security and safety in the budget his treasurer handed down on Tuesday night.'

Dr Michelle Frantom (aka Dr Grafix aka Munted Doll) said...

I hope you are right Peter but in Australia the stimulus package to get our economy 'back on track' unashamedly supports male dominated industries and jobs. It's being called a 'pink recession' because women have suffered the most through COVID. Our sexist right-wing Prime minister and treasurer have absolutely no imagination and believe only housing, roads and construction jobs have any real value. Universities and the arts industries have been left out on a limb with none to little financial help, and the 'caring' industries are low paid and casual.

Australia is recognised as a misogynistic country and although we have made ground in my lifetime, I see it fast returning to the bad old days when women were expected to stay at home and were nothing without the support of a man.

Peter Clothier said...

I'm sad to read this, Michelle. I have a very old friend from my Cambridge days, a woman, who lives in Sydney... Must check it out with her. I'll also check out that Guardian article you sent. The "pink recession" you mention is also happening over here, with women very much hampered in the economic recovery by traditional child care duties--now much shared by increasingly conscious men, I think, but still by no means "equal." Thanks for reading and sharing thoughts.

Dr Michelle Frantom (aka Dr Grafix aka Munted Doll) said...

I'd be interested to hear your Sydney friend's take on this. Her experience may be quite different, or she may see things differently.

I should have mentioned that in my job at least - working for the justice department - I get treated equally. I have some terrific colleagues and a male boss quite a bit younger than me who treats me with a lot of respect. But that may be because he is European and also because I work in education. It is one area in which a good level of equity does exist.