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Pedigree chums 2, Wolf Hall 1 = bliss


Heaven has paws and whiskers; it has floppy ears, a luxuriantly feathered tail and it comes complete with a tranquility punctured only by birdsong from the trees in the garden. And it comes with lavish quantities of good books: books everywhere, burdening bookshelves which bend under their weight, scattered on the floor, piled up by the fireplace gathering dust and patiently awaiting the grasp of the avid reader…
I’ve spent much of the past week in such an environment. And it was – almost – like being back at home (I haven’t got one of those anymore; but can remember what it was like, just as I can recall details like the owls hooting – the only sound to be heard at dead of night). I have always known that I needed very little to be truly content and, for a short space of time, I had all of it. More, in fact,  if you factor in the trust placed in me by friends prepared to leave me in charge of property, contents and inhabitants and offer me a welcome opportunity to assume responsibility. What a pity it was that the mental state of one of them put a stop to any further such exchanges.
In the interim though I had the charge and the company of two lovely animals – a Cavalier King Charles spaniel and a Burmese cat. Duties were lighter than a feather in the spaniel’s tail: I simply had to cater to the animals’ needs. In return, the animals made me feel at home.  The cat curled and uncurled his elegant length on the circular rug, demanding caresses; the dog accompanied me to the market, and his extraordinary beauty and gentle temperament drew people into our shared orbit, prompting some amusing conversation.
“I’ve got one of those at home – a dog, is it?”
I nodded at the friendly blonde Frenchwoman, wandering through the Cours with her quiet, smiling husband. “Mine’s a bitch,” she went on. “and you know she’s, well, lovely! Lovely personality; but sometimes she just looks at me as if to say ‘go away. I don’t want you. Leave me ALONE!’ And then I always tell her ‘you’re being English today!”
I grinned in recognition of a certain … shall we say ‘disdain’? The nice French lady peered at me, listening more closely as we chatted. “Ooh … you’re not English yourself, are you, Madame?”  My admission mortified her, so I rushed to reassure. We ended up comparing notes on relative national plus- and minus points, each balancing out the other’s by a positive.
“The French,” said my new friend, reaching to scratch the dog gently behind his ears, “the French are never content – never satisfied!”
“Yees,” I responded, “but that makes them demand only the best; it sets and raises standards, and keeps everyone up to the mark …”
And so on, and so forth.
I was sorry to see them go; but the dog and I were happy to continue, he blithely fielding admiring glances with perfect insouciance – not to mention unawareness.
Back at the house, between walks, I spent hours on the sofa with the dog either at my feet or my side or, occasionally, burrowing his head companionably and snuffily under my shoulder as I lay full-length. And I read, and read, and read on.

Hilary Mantel, Man Booker prizewinner 09, shortlisted for Orange Prize 2010

Wolf Hall. Of all the prize-winning novels I’ve read, it is the one that most deserves the greatest reward. Lots of people, critics qualified and unqualified, have pinpointed the book’s strengths and delights, so I’ll simply say how compelling it is. How it plunges you instantly into a world that is totally strange, yet somehow strangely familiar, with reference points that spring out in the landscape like waymarks to keep the follower on the right track. How beautifully it is written, and how skilfully the tale is structured and told. How, even to one familiar with the history, the story is still paramount – and may even surprise at times. How she makes the whole series of events her own, freshly seen – and shared with generosity and clarity.
It is a masterpiece.
And I never thought I’d say that about any of Hilary Mantel’s work, not since A Place of Greater Safety (another towering achievement) when I read through her subsequent, contemporary work with growing disappointment: it was good, but not quite as good.  So it was a relief to pick up Wolf Hall, start reading and find that, once again, this writer had conjured spirits from the vasty deep – ones clamouring to be given voice so all could hear (all who would listen, of course).

And now I’ve started talking about it, I can’t stop! A fan of Dorothy Dunnett’s historical series, the Lymond hronicles

Thomas Cromwell, after Holbein the Younger c 1533-4 (NPG London)

and The House of Niccolo, I recognised some characteristics of the eponymous hero of the latter in Mantel’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Aside from shared humble beginnings replete with brutality prompting escape and resourceful exercise of initiative, there were several other similiarities. There was the same subtle, constantly-racing, constantly-calculating mind, analytical and detached yet imaginative and insightful; the same capacity for creating a family, whether biological or by patronage and friendship, and for eliciting and nurturing loyalty. The same capacity for dealing with all comers craftily and successfully, based on minutely keen observation and wider, wise judgement. The same earthy sexuality reined in by steely discipline. The same reserve and ruthlessness. Mantel’s work contains none of Dunnett’s histrionic flourishes, the occult elements and high romance. Wolf Hall is both more real and more dramatically sound – a difficult feat to pull off, considering the facts of Mantel’s tale are there for historically-minded readers to research for themselves.  She doesn’t have the luxury permitted by Dunnett’s story, the margin of error and safety net combined provided by fiction. Here, Mantel must interpret and echo a reality: whose reality (or realities) may never be known, so I shall stop wittering.
As for me, I shall continue to stretch out on a series of sofas wishing I could be transported back onto my own canapé, into my own home. But for the space of a week Wolf Hall took me into a different, more diverting world. And I feel refreshed and grateful as a result. Oh, and as Thomas Cromwell liked little dogs so much, I feel certain he would have loved the one in my care.

(Images sourced from Commons Wiki.)

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