Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Book Review

Her Ladyship commits the not-uncommon indiscretion of reading Wolf Hall after Bring Up The Bodies, and begins to think, as she does sometimes.

Though Hilary Mantel’s publishers do her the great disservice of plastering the back cover and spine of her masterpiece with recommendations from two ludicrous sources who know less about literature than Sherlock Holmes on a good day (Kate Mosse and The Daily Mail); there is absolutely nothing else wrong with Wolf Hall. While Bring Up The Bodies resembles a hard, tightened fist, and a stunning, plummeting fall (or rise); Wolf Hall is like the hilly country of an open hand. It leads us on a merry chase across the years; racing ahead and occasionally doubling back on itself in its mercurial, yet impeccably-controlled portrayal of the rise to power of Henry VIII’s formidable First Minister, Thomas Cromwell.

Like its illustrious successor, Wolf Hall is sparse, but sprawling; sparse in its descriptions of externals, and sprawling in its characterisation; relying on reader imagination to drape the appropriate characters in silks, velvets, gold and jewels and only taking to the descriptions of such things when they reflect something about the character’s internal state. It is in the vivid representation of this internal state that Mantel’s true genius lies, as she takes us right into the heart of a man largely considered to be one of the cut-glass villains of Henry VIII’s reign and gives him his own voice. It is an extraordinary voice.

A powerful, distinctive and almost compulsively interesting protagonist, Mantel’s Cromwell is one of those characters that you constantly wish you could plonk down somewhere and talk to for hours. He is a man with a string of faces and identities that stem from the multiple countries, languages and cultures he has known from adolescence, yet he is also, firmly, himself; the beautiful, resounding ‘he, Cromwell’: a man in a perpetual state of learning and observing, but with a natural gift for applying that learning to intrigue, organised thought and getting his hands dirty that cannot be taught. He is fiercely well-educated and ruthless, but is just as fiercely human; his humanity not only extending to his family life, but to the way he constantly talks to people as he has had to do all his life; how he takes in, trains and raises up young men from nowhere in every part of his household that can be imagined; taking the time to identify each one’s particular gifts and to prepare them for the day that they may be called out of the kitchen and into the counting house; as he was as a young man. One of the best things about him, especially upon entering Henry VIII’s service, is his refusal to make pretensions at nobility or to claim to be from any other part of society than the one he stems from. He’s used to his descent being constantly ridiculed, but one nevertheless gets the feeling that he’s got a little black book somewhere up his sleeve, along with the knowledge that being a blacksmith’s son doesn’t stop you from ruling the world; even if everyone else is intent on thinking so.

As an author, Mantel has the rare ability to convey great passion, sadness and complexity through minimal, yet beautiful prose; stripping Tudor England down to the raw, violent blackness of its inherent self without accoutrements and without excessive romanticism; dispensing with appearances and leaving us with the truth; the insides; the organs; the blood of its characters and its era. The high quality of the prose works together with the glorious experience of seeing Tudor England through the eyes of such a fascinating and utterly unusual man to create a mesmerising read that draws you in from the very first page and makes it difficult to put Wolf Hall down until you’ve finished it.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Review)

‘Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring Up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.’

Hilary Mantel is one of those rare writers with such an exquisite ability to tell a story in the present tense that you spend most of her narrative blissfully unaware that she’s doing it at all. It is through this remarkable gift that Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, achieves everything that present tense writing is supposed to achieve, without all that tedious mucking-about in the suspense-driven, overly-staccato and pointlessly exhausting drivel that usually results when an author tries to do this without having the slightest idea how to do it properly. Mantel makes us live Thomas Cromwell, our extraordinary protagonist, and see things not just from his perspective but from within his consciousness – constantly on our toes, constantly watching, constantly questioning, and constantly doing whatever we must, hour to hour, minute to minute, to cement our position as Henry VIII’s new chief minister during the fall of Anne Boleyn, and to always serve our country well. Our lives often come to resemble an out-of-body experience as we twist and turn and adapt to the characteristics of each person we plot with or against. We are helped along by steering clear of strong emotion; doing this helps us to think clearly; but regrettably, like everyone else, we’re human, and sometimes; not often, but sometimes; cracks start to appear; and disappear just as quickly. And in the midst of all this there is England; a country reeling under the uncertainty of a new faith that is also the uncertainty of an old identity; England that is threatened and England that must be governed. And there is always Henry. He needs to be governed too.

Mantel’s Cromwell has the strongest and most distinctive narrative voice since Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; a charisma so powerful that it seems to rise off the page, but that is also unassuming and incredibly subtle; the charisma of a listener, not a talker; the charisma of a man observing his world from the inside, but also from the outside; an intelligent, cosmopolitan and multilingual blacksmith’s son in the midst of the aristocracy, who understands his surroundings, but will never succeed in getting his surroundings to understand him.

Through Cromwell’s steady and penetrating gaze, the gorgeous furnishings, costumes and pomp and circumstance of the traditional costume drama are stripped right down to the bone, and we understand, while watching the Boleyns’ fall through Cromwell’s eyes, that this period in history was never really about magnificent houses or beautiful costumes at all; but about the people who lived inside them, and what the landscapes beneath their skin actually looked like. The prose is perfect, the characterisation a work of genius, and the enormous cast of characters prodigiously juggled in a way that makes each pawn in its game distinctive and recognisable. A gorgeous, absorbing novel that fully deserves its Booker Prize, it makes those of us who have not read Wolf Hall want to go out and buy it immediately, and those of us who have to wish fervently that The Mirror and the Light was here already.

What Arya would have done in Sansa’s place: being the ramblings of a young lady who adores both Stark girls and is rather sick of the above notion being used to favour one at the expense of the other.

Let us imagine for a moment that Arya hadn’t been so fortunate as to be picked up by Yoren at Ned Stark’s execution (well, how fortunate this event actually was is debatable). What if she’d been taken by the Hound instead, or denounced by someone in the crowd, or even recognised by Joffrey, who is unlikely to forget her face as long as he lives? She’d end up back in the Red Keep (she’d kick, scream and inflict multiple injuries, but she’d still be powerless and in a state of shock) and very likely be locked up on the other side of the castle from Sansa and kept apart from her, if we know Cersei at all. Once the door is bolted behind her, she would be in exactly the same situation as Sansa. True, she wouldn’t be engaged to marry dear King Joff, but as a Stark, she’d still be wide open to his ‘punishments’ every time Robb wins a battle; these would probably go worse for her since her awkwardly androgynous looks wouldn’t make Joffrey tell his Kingsguard to leave her face alone; and she’d eventually be condemned to marry Ramsay Bolton; and we all know what he did to poor Jeyne Poole.

‘If Arya were in Sansa’s situation, she’d handle it so much better,’ are frequent criticisms of Sansa that I’m just plain tired of, so the point of this post is to imagine what would happen if Arya were in Sansa’s situation and see what pops out at the other end. Of course, there will be things I don’t think of. There will be plotholes. But we may find that the two sisters aren’t really so different after all if you put them in the same boat.

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Period immediately after Ned’s death

Catelyn observes to herself at one point that if Arya is still in King’s Landing, Cersei is very likely keeping her far away from the public eye; Arya not being the type to sit down and behave. This fact would also leave Arya wide open to deliberate, obvious attempts to get her to sit down and behave by breaking her; the first and most obvious being to lock her up. Arya is a deep brooder, and it takes a lot to make her cry. So brooding is probably what she would do locked up in whatever room she’s been put into. Escape would be her first thought, which she’d probably attempt almost immediately with something brave but hopeless, like trying to shove the guard over when he delivers her food. If you think of how little mind the Kingsguard pay to Sansa’s nobility when beating her, it isn’t hard to imagine that Arya would probably get a backhand for her trouble from an ordinary soldier. She might refuse to eat after that, but then it would occur to her that eating would keep her alive to take revenge, à la Jaime Lannister. Thoughts of revenge would then lead to the first draft of the List. She’d inevitably be dragged off to see Cersei for a pep talk and an ultimatum to behave or be chastised. The latter would most likely result in Arya spitting in Cersei’s face and attempting to smash her head in with the nearest heavy object. She’d be whipped at that point without being given the option of a whipping girl (which she’d turn down anyway). Cersei wouldn’t dare allow her to attend court, so she might be spared Sansa’s ordeal of being forced to look at Ned’s head on a spike: either that, or Joffrey would give himself the sadistic pleasure of reliving the torture a second time, with another Stark daughter. If the latter, Arya would very likely manage to break Joffrey’s nose before it could occur to the Kingsguard that she might attempt such a thing. They’d grab her soon enough, however, and she’d end up whipped again, and back in her room. Then she’d cry.

Artwork by revived-from-the-ashes on tumblr

Artwork by revived-from-the-ashes on tumblr

Once the initial shock has worn off

I’m guessing Arya isn’t just going to change her mind and cooperate, so the only times she would see the light of day are very likely when the…let’s say monthly ritual of trying to get her to behave inevitably results in a beating, or Joffrey takes it into his head that someone needs to be punished for Robb’s victories. Something tells me he wouldn’t be averse to having both Stark girls stripped and beaten in front of him. The Kingsguard would learn quickly that Arya fights back instead of pleading; so whereas Sansa usually cries but takes her beatings like a good girl, Arya would have to be restrained (we know her well enough to perceive that she’d try anything from grabbing a poorly-placed dagger to simply running off, half naked or not). This means that her entire life would effectively alternate between long periods of isolation and vicious beatings. The problem here is when this way of living would eventually break her, the definition of ‘break’ being key here. Think of the horrors that Arya experiences, the torturing she witnesses and the killing that she sees, hears and does in the books. Do these things ‘break’ her? Think about the stereotypical image of a ‘broken’ person: ‘running on autopilot’, emotionally numb, not caring if they live or die. Yes, Arya definitely has a powerful survival instinct and does indeed care whether or not she lives or dies: she has a List of kills to do. But what about her emotions? Arya’s primary feelings when considering herself and her life are shame, fear and anger, which lead to a sort of lack of consciousness that she is human at all, and that dreadful pronouncement that she has a hole where her heart used to be. There’s a precarious, artificial calmness on the surface and in her mind that can be shattered at any moment, the ever-present fire inside losing none of its intensity. But because she fears being kicked out by the Faceless Men (and because she genuinely wants to join them), she’s no longer free to do anything she wants. She can’t be herself anymore, both literally and figuratively. So she’ll present an outward mirage of calm: inside, she’s terrified, alive, with no idea what to do about it and no idea how to find out except to keep on living, and learn. Sounds a lot like Sansa, doesn’t it?

Back in our imaginary universe, alternating between confinement and beatings may very well be a longer process than murder and torture in the books, but they would eventually have the same ultimate effect in turning her into an automaton that’s also a ticking bomb. At some point, Arya would realise that she stands a better chance of escaping and surviving by keeping her mouth shut, cooperating and observing. When this would actually occur is anyone’s guess, though after the Red Wedding seems most likely, for obvious reasons. And when Arya would eventually come to this decision, she would have to do what Sansa does every single day: smile, be polite to every Lannister she sees, participate in court life, pretend she’s a guest instead of a hostage and pray that she doesn’t get killed. A life of walking on broken shards of glass that would be a serious challenge to her already-tried nerves (remember she won’t have had the emotionally-hardening experiences of A Clash of Kings onwards and will also be suffering from cabin fever) and very likely turn her into a quivering wreck with an inexplicably strong survival instinct. In other words, it’d turn her into another version of Sansa.

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Another thing Arya would certainly have done in Sansa’s place is attempt to escape. Since we should give her the credit of being able to hold out for at least a few months, if not longer, we should consider the possibility of Littlefinger’s scheme to spirit Sansa away after Joffrey’s wedding either including or excluding her. Both are possible. Littlefinger might only be interested in the eldest Stark girl for obvious reasons and therefore not pay much heed to leaving the youngest behind. But then he’d also have a considerable hand of cards in his pocket if he had both Stark girls under his control, so he might very well take them both (and hopefully put someone apart from Ser Dontos in charge). His decision to take Arya along would no doubt be motivated by how much he would stand to lose from her marriage to Ramsay Bolton. We’re never told if he knows about this, or if the idea had even been conceived of when he first started making his plans…nah. Even if he did know about the Bolton marriage, the temptations of the intrigues he could hatch with control of both Stark daughters would be too great to resist. So Arya goes along. Then what? While it’s impossible to answer this question without getting dangerously close to inventing instead of speculating, the point is still the same: we have both Stark sisters traumatised and emotionally-repressed, pawns in a game they don’t understand, both ‘handling’ their situation in the same way. Tiptoeing, swallowing fear and escaping.

So while our imagining of Arya’s journey to living as a ward of the Crown that executed her father may express greater stubbornness and courage than Sansa’s acceptance of her situation, it wouldn’t really qualify as ‘handling it better.’ ‘Handling it better’ seems to denote a greater strength of mind or a greater control of emotion, neither of which Arya possesses in greater quantity than Sansa, who has endured all the agony of her situation without snapping or going mad. Our imagining of what Arya would do in the Red Keep following Ned’s death is the long way round to the same result; a noble but pointless reaction that few characters but Brienne would applaud.

Featured image is by vici-mercedes on fanpop

Kickass literary heroes: Another Victorian/Fantasy Mashup

Following the success of Kickass literary heroines: A Victorian/Fantasy Mashup, it is now the turn of the boys. While we will inevitably lose the feminist vibe of the original, it does seem unfair to let these bundles of awesome go unnoticed simply because of an accident of birth.

Sidney Carton – A Tale of Two Cities

James Whilby as Sidney in the 1989 BBC adaptation.

James Whilby as Sidney in the 1989 BBC adaptation.

A proverbial fallen angel, dissolute lawyer Sidney Carton is a mercurial mass of contradictions. Frequently overcome by a sense of despair and self-loathing at the life he leads, he’s allowed le mal du siècle to become so deeply entrenched in him that attempting to reform himself seems like more trouble than his possible success would be beneficial. Nevertheless, he has a simple, almost idealistic love for the right and the just, sometimes allowing himself temporary respite by basking in their light before slinking back into the shadows he believes he deserves. Eventually, he gladly pays the ultimate price so that this light may be continued. The novel’s ending sequence, which comprises both his meeting his soul mate while being carted off to the guillotine, as well as several pages worth of stunning reflections on the greatness of France, of sacrifice and of redemption, is justifiably recognised as one of the best endings in English literature.

Tyrion Lannister – A Song of Ice and Fire

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion in the HBO adaptation.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion in the HBO adaptation.

So I like to blog about Tyrion. A lot. But he is one of the greatest, if not the greatest creation in fantasy literature, so leaving him out would be scandalous. A fiercely intelligent man, Tyrion has the misfortune to be born suffering from dwarfism into the most powerful family in Westeros, most of whom come to see his existence as a curse and a humiliation. One often gets the feeling that Tyrion could deal with any amount of ridicule from society were he assured of having the love and support of his own family. But he isn’t, and apart from a deep, shared love for his elder brother Jaime thanks to a horrific adolescent trauma, he’s had to put up with every hope or harmless dream he ever had being brutally crushed or ridiculed, usually by his father or sister, with whom he cultivates disastrous relationships. His mind being his only way of defending himself, Tyrion uses it to survive, and above all, to exist, colourfully and incandescently, in a world that would rather he didn’t. Ordered (reluctantly) by his father Lord Tywin to serve as Hand of the King in his stead, Tyrion shows himself to be a formidable enemy, an ingenious politician and a stunningly original thinker and schemer. When he falls from grace, and he falls hard, he proves himself to be as miserable a human being as the rest of us, the crippling loneliness and despair he has felt his entire life crushing everything he has achieved. It’s then that he starts to think about revenge…

Abraham Van Helsing – Dracula

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in the Hammer adaptations.

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in the Hammer adaptations.

Misrepresented and misunderstood on an epidemic scale, Professor Van Helsing is so adorable that you want to transform him into a teddy bear that you can hug when you feel blue. Hundreds of students have passed through the hands of this endlessly energetic, kind and warm-hearted Doctor of Medicine and of Literature; and when he’s not occupied with university work, he dedicates himself to the study of the paranormal and with giving every iota of his energy to helping those who have been contaminated by vampires. This is first demonstrated by his efforts to help Lucy, during which he sits up night and day and bleeds himself of a dangerous amount of blood to restore the unfortunate girl’s faculties. When his efforts fail, largely due to the idiocy of Lucy’s mother, and the case soon becomes about tracking down and destroying Dracula himself, his actions are those of a loving, paternal and absolutely ruthless man who will do anything to stamp out evil. He is goodness and sweetness incarnate: and don’t get me started on his adorable English…

Silk – The Belgariad and The Malloreon

Silk artwork by Mirror Cradle on deviantart.

Silk artwork by Mirror Cradle on deviantart.

While his real name may be Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, this prodigiously gifted product of his nation’s celebrated intelligence service has so many different identities in so many different places that he suffers from a permanent identity crisis that he finds amusing rather than alarming. Tiny, with a face like a rat, he’s sweepingly sarcastic and gleefully disrespectful; he’s fond of casual theft, paying and receiving bribes, outwitting his enemies, annoying his friends, going undercover and manipulating the economy in his spare time. His sunny disposition does, however, conceal a variety of griefs and psychological issues, including the plague-induced blindness and horrific disfigurement of his mother and his hopeless unrequited love for his uncle’s wife, which continues for an immense number of years before his being reunited with future-wife Velvet (real name Liselle), who turns out to be every bit as devious as he is. Most of the time, he’s disarmingly and uproariously funny, and steals your heart about as quickly as he picks your pockets.

John Thornton – North and South

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in the BBC adaptation.

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in the BBC adaptation.

For the millions of you who probably don’t know, Mr. Thornton is the brusque Northern cotton mill owner who dethroned Mr. Darcy as quintessential brooding romantic hero after a reign of almost ten years, thanks to a terrific performance by Richard Armitage in the BBC miniseries. John has endured an immensely difficult adolescence after his father commits suicide due to ruinous debt. Encouraged by his formidable mother Mrs. Thornton (see Ten Great TV Performances You’ve Never Seen), he works right through his teenaged years to pay the creditors back and regains the family mill. He takes immense care to protect the health and wellbeing of his workers, and, against his mother’s wishes, studies the classics in his spare time in order to improve himself, believing that there is more to life than the pursuit of wealth. It’s at this point that he falls in love with his tutor’s daughter Margaret, a headstrong and stubborn precursor to feminism from the South who, due to her own misplaced prejudice, sees him as a fat cat profiting from the misery of his workers and thinks his feelings for her are ‘offensive.’ Margaret’s rejection of him only serves to increase his own feelings of inadequacy and of still being considered a simple tradesman who is incapable of bettering himself despite his efforts to the contrary. As the novel progresses, these feelings only intensify, and he becomes one of the loneliest men you could imagine as he refuses to stray from the path of decency to his workers even when in danger of losing everything he has worked for.

Samwise Gamgee – The Lord of the Rings

Sean Astin as Sam in the celebrated Peter Jackson adaptations.

Sean Astin as Sam in the celebrated Peter Jackson adaptations.

Oh, Sam. Where shall we start? The most loyal character in existence, demonstrating the sweetest innocence, the most perfect sense of right and wrong and a blinding, moving inner strength at his darkest hour. He has no Galadriel to help him – only himself. He is such a gentle, simple soul who rises so spectacularly and so courageously to the challenge of being flung into perpetual danger further and further from home. His is the poetry of the ordinary person: he’ll risk taking the most unspeakable evil into himself to give some relief to a friend, and he’ll stay, always, even when seized by the deepest unhappiness and the most awful fear of rejection.

Sherlock Holmes – A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear, His Last Bow, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Jeremy Brett as Holmes in the Grenada TV adaptation.

Jeremy Brett as Holmes in the Grenada TV adaptation.

Okay, so it’s not completely Victorian all the time, but Holmes has enough esteem for Queen Victoria to adorn one side of his living room with ‘V.R.’ done in bullet holes, so let’s not worry too much about it. Jeremy Brett once remarked in an interview that the three most influential people of the 20th century were Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill and Sherlock Holmes. If you consider that Sherlock Holmes never actually existed, that’s a fair testament to Mr. Holmes’ importance. While boasting a truly brilliant mind, possibly the greatest ever, he abounds with eccentricities, many of them alarming and rather disturbing. Holmes is a consulting detective, not a private one, and thus only occupies himself with cases that amuse him, the stranger the better, which he will solve and investigate with a poorly suppressed glee regardless of their gruesomeness. He cannot be induced to talk about his cases if he doesn’t want to, which will often leave him silent for many days at a time, not even indulging the entreaties of his friend and colleague Doctor Watson, with whom he shares a symbiotic relationship. He has a deep love of chemistry that goes well with his complete disregard for bad smells. He’s fond of leaving the sitting room at Baker Street strewn with papers for months of end, insisting that no one can sort them out and pack them away except him. He likes to play the violin, and has an almost autistic disrespect for people in general, regardless of rank. And while he does what he does for the rush and the thrill of the chase, he also does it because of a glorious humanity that he very rarely admits to.

Belgarath – The Belgariad and The Malloreon

Belgarath cover art by Geoff Taylor.

Belgarath cover art by Geoff Taylor.

Belgarath is bordering on 7000 years old. He’s old. An easily annoyed great sorcerer, he doesn’t take nonsense, has an unhealthy fondness for drinking and wenching, likes to steal food, wears a filthy sort of rag instead of a tunic that he ties with a bit of rope, wears mismatched boots, has a long white beard, and smells. Awfully. Hearing only that side of his personality, you might think that he’s a stereotype on the mighty sorcerer that David and Lee Eddings did for a bit of fun, but while it’s evident the pair of them had the time of their lives writing him, he isn’t a stereotype. He remembers only too well the pain that drove him out of his mind when his beloved wife Poledra died, leaving him twin daughters. He’s been alive for so long; he often wishes he could follow himself if he wasn’t so busy following prophecy, and he has loved his family so long and so deeply that he’s forced to mask it from the uncomprehending with naughty humour and constant arguing with his surviving daughter Polgara and his brothers Beldin, Beltira and Belkira. The rest of the world justifiably reveres him and respectfully calls him ‘Ancient One’, a title that never fails to provoke a scowl, and he has a charming way of treating both peasants and kings in an equally crass and casual way. He never makes the slightest attempt to seem wise and Gandalf-like, because he doesn’t have to. The greatest of all these characteristics is that Belgarath is a badass: tyrants and despots the world over are absolutely terrified of him, and he positively flays the skin off the evil and the unjust. He is a formidable, incredibly mischievous, humanly flawed and usually half-drunk force for Good who never fails to triumph.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (Book Review)

When you lose someone you love in an awful way, you begin to crave aloneness. The rest of the world is uncomprehending and very likely mad as well, so why bother with it? You find yourself prepared to structure your entire life around this aloneness, or wishing you could. You want an indifferent sort of job that doesn’t require much passion or much thinking: just something that pays enough for you to afford the rent, live reasonably cheaply and be as alone as possible. You occasionally meet people who are so awesome that you don’t mind them disturbing your aloneness. They can be people who are experiencing the same thing as you, or who have no idea that you’re experiencing anything at all.

But aloneness is addictive. It’s comforting. It’s convenient. You get used to it. But if you want to live at all, you eventually have to choose the living or the dead. For a while, you won’t realise that you’ve been living with both. But you have, and nobody can live like that. So you have to pick one or the other. And choosing either one will hurt.

Kickass literary heroines: A Victorian/ Fantasy Mashup

Lyra Silvertongue – His Dark Materials Trilogy

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in the god-awful film adaptation.

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in the god-awful film adaptation.

The foul-mouthed urchin who would be Eve, this twelve year old Oxford native possesses the strength of all women, navigating a multitude of dangerous, sometimes steampunk Blakean worlds of archangel assassins and tyrannical deities in a quest to restore a Truth hidden since the writing of the Bible. She loves deeply and loses excruciatingly, but is nevertheless possessed with an immovable, Frodo-like certainty that none but she can see her task through to the end.

Violet Hunter – The Adventure of the Copper Beeches (Sherlock Holmes)

Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter in the Grenada TV adaptation.

Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter in the Grenada TV adaptation.

I have blogged about Violet before, but no list of awesome Victorian women is complete without her. Being the only woman apart from the overrated Irene Adler that Holmes would look twice at, this oft-forgotten woman is completely independent, insanely daring, meticulously observant and very, very bright; her determination to find the reason for the strange conduct of her employer impressing the wits out of Holmes, even inspiring him to favour her with the rare compliment of calling her ‘quite exceptional.’ She kicks an impressive amount of conspiracy ass with Holmes and Watson, before disappearing as quickly as Holmes’ interest in her, now that she’s no longer one of his clients.

Éowyn Dernhelm – The Lord of the Rings

Miranda Otto as Éowyn in the immortal Peter Jackson adaptation.

Miranda Otto as Éowyn in the immortal Peter Jackson adaptation.

One of many glorious Tolkien originals, Éowyn is multi-faceted and wild. Suffocated by the tradition that puts a sword in her hand but only allows her to use it in the defence of hearth and home, this shieldmaiden is possessed by a deep sadness at Sauron’s gradual poisoning of Middle Earth; a sadness that metamorphoses to a fiery anger both at the enemy and at her being forbidden to fight, as men do, to protect what she loves. It is both this and her desperate unrequited love for Aragorn that leads her to the battlefield at Pellennor Fields, where she endures an agonising dark night of the soul that is followed, eventually, by a blindingly incandescent catharsis.

Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre

Ruth Wilson as Jane in the 2006 BBC adaptation.

Ruth Wilson as Jane in the 2006 BBC adaptation.

More than anything else, Jane Eyre is free – penniless and without family, but free to go where she chooses and to do as she pleases. Ruled by a sense of right that is her own and not society’s, Jane’s strength is her ability to remain true to herself, even if it means making an unbearable choice between that and the person she loves. There’s none of the usual cooing about strong feelings being wrong and unbecoming: she knows, and admits, that she’s passionate, but doesn’t let that passion control her. This is particularly exemplified in the year she spends away from Rochester following the catastrophe at their wedding: she accepts that there is fulfillment and even, to a certain extent, happiness, to be found in retaining that self. Thankfully, she’s also perceptive and sensitive enough to realise that, where real love is concerned, being true to the other person and to oneself sometimes cannot be separated.

Polgara – The Belgariad and The Malloreon

Polgara cover art.

Polgara cover art.

The sorceress Polgara is several thousand years old. Daughter to the great if crotchety Belgarath, one of several immortal sorcerer disciples of the god Aldur, she is simply ‘Aunt Pol’ to generations and generations of ordinary tradesmen and craftsmen that she protects both from the knowledge that they are the direct descendants of the assassinated King of Riva, Overlord of the West and from the generations and generations of bad guys who know the bloodline still exists and will do anything to extinguish it. She suffers tremendously from what one might call ‘the immortal complex,’ a harrowing, ever-present sadness and knowledge that she will outlive the ones she loves many hundreds of times over and that she will never be able to engage fully with that grief: there will always be another child to raise, another family to be strong for. Her joys in life are simplicity, domesticity and solid, profound goodness, as exemplified in her marriage to the blacksmith Durnik, BUT: terrifyingly powerful and fatally beautiful, she is as formidable an enemy as she is a friend.

Arya Stark – A Song of Ice and Fire

Maisie Williams as Arya in the HBO adaptation.

Maisie Williams as Arya in the HBO adaptation.

A staunch believer that she has a hole where her heart used to be, Arya, who was eleven the last time we saw her, is ruled by anger and vengeance. Already possessing a naturally iron, angry disposition when she witnesses her father beheaded for treason, long months on the road posing as a boy, both free and in captivity, have ensured her daily exposure to the most horrifying cruelty, torture and injustice. This has led to a merciless, eye-for-an-eye view of the world and willingness to commit murder at a moment’s notice, though she still possesses an immensely strong moral compass and confines her bloodlust to those that she believes deserve to die, the most important of whom feature on a list which she recites each night before going to sleep, rather like other people say their prayers. Furthermore, being on the run from most people in the Seven Kingdoms, she has been forced to adopt a wide variety of different identities and smother her own in the name of staying alive. Every day, she tries to kill the little girl by forcing herself to look at each corpse and each hideous injury she comes across, but is also haunted by a childlike fear that she will face rejection if reunited with her family, because of all the people she’s killed.

Marian Halcombe – The Woman in White

Tara Fitzgerald as Marian and Simon Callow as Count Fosco in the 1997 BBC film.

Tara Fitzgerald as Marian and Simon Callow as Count Fosco in the 1997 BBC film.

By far the most interesting woman in the whole of Victorian literature, Marian is the charismatic, ugly and highly intelligent half-sister of the highly annoying Laura Fairlie, the love interest of the novel’s protagonist, Walter Hartwright.

When her beloved Laura turns out to have married an abusive fortune hunter who wants to murder her for her money, and Laura herself turns out to be utterly useless in a crisis, Marian must do everything she can to keep Laura alive and unmask her husband’s plot in the house where they are both trapped. This involves climbing out of her bedroom window in her underwear and eavesdropping in the pouring rain for over an hour, somehow managing to get over the resulting fever in time to fake Laura’s death, and to break her out of a highly secure asylum in broad daylight. She also gets into a somewhat creepy understanding with her new brother in law’s friend and partner in crime, the redoubtable Count Fosco, with whom she shares volcanic ‘hate’ chemistry, hides for months in London (once again taking care of her pathologically useless sister, who has now added insanity to her infinite charms), and, when it’s all over, determines to spend the rest of her life as a companion to her sister rather than search for a serviceable husband to justify her existence.

God awful: ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse

Like Ken Follett, Kate Mosse is one of those unfortunate writers with a nose like a bloodhound for a good story, but who can’t write to save their lives. The reader suffers under the weight of this fact for all 700 pages of Labyrinth, Mosse’s obscenely well-reviewed novel of the Holy Grail where an obvious love for Carcassonne is besmirched by tedious characters, unconvincing dialogue, awful Hollywood clichés and lots of plain old bad writing.

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The novel’s plot is irresistible. Two principal characters, 800 years apart. The contemporary Alice Tanner’s discovery of a cave on an archaeological dig awakens a powerful déjà-vu of Alaïs Pelletier du Mas, the 13th century daughter of the steward of Carcassonne at the time of the Albigensian heresy, who finds herself charged with protecting the most explosive secret in history: three books that resolve the mystery of the Holy Grail.

Jessica Brown Findlay as Alaïs in the 2012 TV adaptation.

Jessica Brown Findlay as Alaïs in the 2012 TV adaptation.

Naturally, there are a whole lot of bad guys who also want the books, notably Alaïs’ evil older sister Oriane (sigh) and the equally evil Guy d’Evreux, who spends most of his time banging on the walls of Carcassonne and behaving like a typical Crusader by slaughtering as many Cathars as he can, the nearest Muslims being inconveniently situated on the other side of the Pyrenees. There is a kind of reincarnation that takes place between these two timelines, with visible modern counterparts of the medieval characters dominating the contemporary side of the novel. Everything is there for a great novel, but Labyrinth just…isn’t great.

Katie McGrath as Oriane

Katie McGrath as Oriane

Almost all of the novel’s weak points can be roughly grouped under the fact that we are dealing with superbly bad writing here. The characters in both timelines are portrayed without the slightest attempt at subtlety. Nothing they say or do is enough to persuade us that we may (someday) find them interesting. Alice, for instance, seems to be perpetually condemned to the gallows of wondering ‘What the hell?’ or ‘What the hell is going on?’, before miraculously acquiring a more extensive vocabulary towards the end of the book. Oriane is less interesting (and less convincing) than Colin Farrell discussing The Cherry Orchard. One is not frightened of her, or disgusted with her (which we should be, considering some of the things she gets up to): she simply exists. Poor Alaïs is simply incapable of inspiring anything in the reader apart from the desire to punch her. The further down the list of dramatis personae you get, the worse it becomes. Don’t even get me started on Alaïs’ husband, the dashing and dull chevalier Guilhem du Mas: while writing this, I am struggling considerably to think up a few more words to describe him, but, as in the case of Oriane, words fail me. He simply exists. To add insult to injury, the parallels between medieval and modern characters are decorated with sparkling neon lights as opposed to subtle prose, and induce far more rolls of the eyes than smiles of recognition. It’s just bad writing. There isn’t really another way to put it.

Vanessa Kirkby as Alice Tanner.

Vanessa Kirkby as Alice Tanner.

The characters, however, aren’t half as bad as the words that form both them and their world. The novel’s medieval characters speak an appalling and dizzyingly cringeworthy pseudo-medieval English that I simply can’t bear to reproduce here and that makes you doubt Mosse’s ever having read so much as a page of medieval literature despite the novel’s once-off jabbering about Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron. It is questionable that anybody in the history of creation ever spoke like this. If they did, they’d either have been burned at the stake or packed off to occupational therapy, depending on the time frame. The same is true for the smattering of contemporary French that one encounters in the novel: no one speaks like this, and no one ever did speak like this. Furthermore, the novel’s pages are saturated with grammatical errors that will disturb readers who can actually speak English, and the sections that are supposed to frighten us are overloaded with silly Hollywood clichés like ‘I’d like to see some ID’ and ‘at last we understand one another,’ inducing thunderous groans that have nothing whatever to do with ecstasy.

As I stated previously, this novel’s ultimate curse is that its writer does not know how to write. Her deep love of Carcassonne and of the Languedoc is evident. It is not, however, contagious, and there is simply too much wrong with this book for that feeling to change. As in the case of The Pillars of the Earth, I sincerely hope that the miniseries does a good job of turning a mediocre novel into a brilliant script.