There are Booker Prize winners and there are Booker Prize winners. I still vaguely rue the day that I read online about the 2003 prize going to D. B. C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little and stopped at the bookstore on the way home from work to impulsively buy it–in hardcover, no less. A few pages were enough to relegate it to the sell pile.
What a different world is the 2009 winner, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel’s thrilling novel of the Tudor court has been praised to the skies everywhere, so it’s not news that I’m spellbound near the halfway point. Yet the novel defies being rushed through, so I’ve been pacing myself, even starting and finishing other novels along the way (specifically, Zoë Heller’s The Believers and lately Notes on a Scandal, about which more another time). I pick up Wolf Hall when I’m feeling focused, receptive, and equal to its plenitude.
Like a Renaissance court painter, Mantel saves some of her best effects for depicting cloth–its color, texture, even the way it smells. In this middle-of-the-night scene, she describes King Henry VIII’s robe:
Henry slowly smiles. From the dream, from the night, from the night of shrouded terrors, from maggots and worms, he seems to uncurl, and stretch himself. He stands up. His face shines. The fire stripes his robe with light, and in its deep folds flicker ocher and fawn, colors of earth, of clay.
The fabric is fine, but still the stuff of Henry’s nightmares. Later in the same scene, the book’s protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, is leaving the king. He thinks of his late friend and patron Cardinal Wolsey, exiled by Henry earlier in the novel and eventually arrested, and the fate of the cardinal’s vestments. The memory speaks to him of air, not earth like Henry’s garment.
He thinks back to the day York Place was wrecked. He and George Cavendish stood by as the chests were opened and the cardinal’s vestments taken out. The copes were sewn in gold and silver thread, with patterns of golden stars, with birds, fishes, harts, lions, angels, flowers and Catherine wheels. When they were repacked and nailed into their traveling chests, the king’s men delved into the boxes that held the albs and cottas, each folded, by an expert touch, into fine pleats. Passed hand to hand, weightless as resting angels, they glowed softly in the light; loose one, a man said, let us see the quality of it. Fingers tugged at the linen bands; here, let me, George Cavendish said. Freed, the cloth drifted against the air, dazzling white, fine as a moth’s wing. When the lids of the vestments chests were raised there was the smell of cedar and spices, somber, distant, desert-dry. But the floating angels had been packed away in lavender; London rain washed against the glass, and the scent of summer flooded the dim afternoon.
When they were first seized, early in the novel, the garments didn’t seem so evanescent–they had a substance, structure, and authority that have fled in Cromwell’s memory of them.
They bring out the cardinal’s vestments, his copes. Stiff with embroidery, strewn with pearls, encrusted with gemstones, they seem to stand by themselves. The raiders knock down each one as if they are knocking down Thomas Becket. They itemize it, and having reduced it to its knees and broken its spine, they toss it into their traveling crates. Cavendish flinches: “For God’s sake, gentlemen, line those chests with a double thickness of cambric. Would you shred the fine work that has taken nuns a lifetime?”
Tapestries, as distinct from paintings, receive a similar emphasis in the novel. More about that next week.