Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Halloween Blood Bath[ory] Post

I've been researching Elizabeth (or Erzabet) Báthory—the “Blood Countess”—for my nonfiction wip, tentatively titled ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Bastards, and Bad Seeds. Elizabeth most certainly is one of the baddest of bad seeds, and since it's Halloween, I thought I'd put up a special holiday post about this fifteenth/sixteenth century Hungarian noblewoman who was one of history's greatest mass murderesses.

So, sit back, relax, curl up with a goblet of your favorite potion, and enjoy the gruesome life story of one of history's real-life ghouls.

“The Blood Countess”

She made the Marquis de Sade look like Mother Teresa. In an age when her English counterparts were plying their needles or playing the virginals, Elizabeth Báthory was employing red hot pincers and bathing in virginal blood.

Stephan Bathory, King of Poland

Like most noble families, the Hungarian Báthory clan, and especially Elizabeth’s parents, György and Anna (whose father, also named Stephan Báthory, had been a Voivode or Prince of Transylvania), prided themselves on the purity of their line, and of course inbreeding leads to insanity. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth’s family had its share of mentally deranged relations. This niece of the Polish king Stephan Báthory, a political crony of Prince Vlad Dracula of Wallachia, came by her brutality honestly—or at least genetically. Her aunt Klara was a bisexual sadomasochist with a specific talent for flagellation; one of her uncles was into devil-worship; and Elizabeth’s brother was merely a libidinous drunkard. Her own predilections appear to have been a fatal combination of nature and nurture.

Because of her noble rank, it was beneath Elizabeth’s dignity, even as a child, to be scolded for anything she did; consequently, she grew up vain, willful, and arrogant. She also would eventually become quite a beauty; tall, raven-haired, and voluptuous, with pale skin and catlike amber eyes.

Although Western Europe had emerged from the dark ages into the comparatively enlightened and cultured Renaissance, much of the central and eastern areas of the continent had yet to cast off the violence and superstition of the Middle Ages. And while the Tudors were no strangers to torture, and particularly to gory and incendiary public executions, the nobles of Mittel Europe, lacking the poetry of a William Shakespeare or the paintbrush and chisel of a Michelangelo, resorted to making their murders as heinously creative as possible.

When Elizabeth was a little girl she was permitted to witness a public execution where a gypsy (the malfeasor) was stuffed into the freshly slit belly of a horse (while the completely innocent beast was still alive), and sewn into the warm, bloody cavity. The tortured horse writhed in pain and tried to rid itself of its unwelcome burden, while the gypsy struggled in vain to free himself from the horse’s gut. Both expired in due course, but not until they’d provided a bored and jaded populace with a highly entertaining reality show.

Perhaps this is where baby Báthory developed her taste for gruesome torture. In any case, she lived in an especially violent culture and came from a particularly demented family with a ghoulish cast of role models. But surely from witnessing the public’s delight in and the authorities’ sanction of this unique form of execution, Elizabeth must have grown up assuming that anything goes.
She was never quite right in the head, however. Elizabeth began to experience epileptic seizures at the age of four or five in addition to the violent mood swings of a classic manic depressive. Though her temper was fierce, her birthright shielded her from chastisement, let alone punishment, for any bad behavior. The Báthorys were a wealthy, influential and powerful Protestant family, highly connected in the world of sixteenth-century Hungary.

In 1570, at the age of nine, Elizabeth was contracted in marriage to Ferenc [pronounced Franz] Nádasdy, eleven years her senior, and was packed off, according to the custom of the time, to reside with her future mother-in-law. There she may have been given a long lead as well, because it was rumored that she’d given birth in 1574 to an illegitimate daughter fathered by a peasant boy. The child, if there ever was one, was purportedly smuggled away—to where and to whom, no one seems to know.

Before Elizabeth got herself into further trouble, in the presence of 4500 guests she was married to Ferenc Nádasdy on May 8, 1575 in the palace at Varannó. She was fourteen years old; the groom was twenty-five. Although he was already a war hero known for his feats of athletic prowess off the battlefield (though his own mother admitted that her boychik was “no scholar,”), Ferenc made the rare move of adopting his bride’s surname as his own. It would greatly enhance his prestige to be thought of as a Báthory.

Ferenc wouldn’t be the first to marry a younger, smarter wife. Elizabeth was much better educated than her husband, able to read and write Greek, Latin, German, and her native Hungarian. Nevertheless, it’s always good for spouses to have common interests, and in the case of Elizabeth and Ferenc, they shared a particularly unusual one: both were sadists.

Ferenc’s temper was notorious. As a warlord he didn’t spare the rod, savagely flogging and beating both adversary and underling; and earning himself the remarkably complimentary and alliterative nickname, “The Black Hero of Hungary.” His wife’s soubriquet was equally insouciant; in due time she would be known throughout Europe as “The Blood Countess.”

After a brief stay at Nádasdy Castle in Sárvár, where Elizabeth whiled away her hours while Ferenc studied in nearby Vienna, the couple took up residence in the thirteenth-century Castle Csejthe [also spelled Čachtice], a gloomy fortress perched high in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania.
It had been a wedding gift from the Nádasdy family to their teenage daughter-in-law. The castle, or the picturesque rubble that remains of it, is located in present-day Slovakia.

Ferenc made his living fighting the Ottoman Turks and consequently spent little time at home. While he was off butchering his enemies, his young wife developed an odd way of relieving her boredom. No embroidery or dancing lessons for Elizabeth. She didn’t even curl up with a good heretical tract. Instead, Aunt Klara began popping ’round to school her niece in her preferred methods of entertainment: flagellation, lesbian orgies, and various forms of sadomasochism.

Klara was abetted by a loyal retainer named Thorko who introduced the beautiful young newlywed to the occult, piquing her interest in mixology. Elizabeth grew adept at concocting sundry drugs, brews, and potions; and in her husband’s absence her various houseguests included self-proclaimed sorcerers and seers, warlocks, witches, and alchemists. Before long, black magic and torture were her favorite ways to pass the time. She became especially fond of a set of silver pincers that could clip and claw off chunks of someone’s flesh. The device had a particular allure because it was so versatile: it could be heated until it was as hot as a branding iron or attached to a sturdy whip, turning it into an effective flaying tool. Ferenc, who made a career out of massacring Hungary’s military enemies, couldn’t stand the heat. When Elizabeth got out the silver pincers, he had to leave the room.

While Ferenc was off fighting the Turks, Elizabeth also amused herself with a variety of Italian sex toys and took it into her head to color it—bleaching her hair the same pale blond that was all the fashion in sixteenth-century Venice among both noblewomen and courtesans.

She liked to collect recipes, too, writing to her husband at the front about a particularly effective one she’d learned from one of her handmaidens. “Dorka has taught me a lovely new one. Catch a black hen and beat it to death with a white cane. Keep the blood and smear a little of it on your enemy. If you get no chance to smear it on his body, obtain one of his garments and smear it.”

Like most sadists, Elizabeth learned that the best victims were the weak. As there were no existing laws governing the relationship between masters and servants, the peasant girls employed at Castle Csejthe were fair game and fertile fodder for Elizabeth and Klara’s gruesome hobby.

Five of Elizabeth’s most loyal and trusted servants ensured that the girls (those who survived the tortures, or who made it safely through another day after their fellow slaveys and sculleries were murdered) would keep quiet about what they had seen or heard. One girl who was deemed too voluble had her mouth sewn shut.

In fact everyone in Hungary, regardless of rank or proximity, lived in terror of the wrath of the powerful Báthorys.

Still only an adolescent girl herself when she began torturing peasant girls, Elizabeth took advantage of a serving wench’s merest misstep, using it as an excuse to punish her. But rebukes and slaps were for sissies. If a girl was suspected of theft, she was commanded to strip naked and was then tortured by the application of red-hot coins pressed against her bare skin.

Sometimes the countess opted to go organic: the girls were whipped with stinging nettles after being beaten with some other device. And even if a servant girl hadn’t misbehaved she might still end up as the day’s entertainment. Mutilation was frequently on the menu. Girls were placed into cages fitted with internal spikes that impaled them everywhere as the cage tightened, resulting in an agonizing and bloody death. Pincers and tongs, heated until they glowed, were used to tear off bits of flesh. Scalding irons branded their tender skin. Elizabeth even perfected a technique of tearing a girl’s head apart by tugging the sides of her mouth until they ripped, and her neck snapped in two.

The countess was said to have achieved sexual ecstasy during these torture sessions, squealing in girlish delight at the sights and sounds of her victims’ agony. She enjoyed whipping them from the front, just so she could see the pain and terror on their faces.

Sometimes for kicks and giggles Elizabeth would slather a girl with honey and tie her to a tree, leaving her to the mercy of insects and other wildlife with a sweet tooth. Her water torture involved stripping the girls naked, pouring water on them and then leaving them in the frigid mountain air to freeze to death. And even Dick Cheney would have been impressed with Elizabeth’s “star-kicking” game. Bits of oiled paper were inserted between her victims’ toes and set aflame. She had endless hours of fun watching the hapless young women trying to kick off the burning paper, which, thanks to the piping hot oil, was stuck to their skin, burning it as well. If that became boring, she could always burn the girls’ genitals with a hot poker, or candle wax. Other instruments of torture included razors, torches, and knives.

In 1604, at the age of forty-seven, Ferenc died, possibly from a wound he received in battle. Between 1585 and 1598 he and Elizabeth had had five children, two of which had died in infancy. The surviving offspring were in placed the care of governesses, a common practice at the time.

With Ferenc in his grave, Elizabeth was a lonely, thirty-something widow, losing her looks and intent on staving off the aging process. Traditional cosmetics weren’t doing the trick. Even a glamorous new wardrobe failed to deflect attention from her epidermal flaws.
But by then she had discovered that torture and mutilation had an additional, and healthful, benefit. One day, a hapless servant accidentally pulled the countess’s hair while she was brushing it, and received such a resounding slap that her nose bled; the blood splashed on Elizabeth’s hands (or face, depending on the source of the anecdote). After regarding herself in a mirror, Elizabeth was convinced that her skin looked ever so much more youthful where the virgin girl’s blood had spattered her. If only Restylane and Botox had been invented—how many young lives might have been spared!

After Anna Darvulia, one of Elizabeth’s entourage, suggested that bathing in the blood of virgins would be as beneficial as a fountain of youth, Elizabeth lured as many peasant girls as she could to Castle Csejthe, as well as to her other properties, to ensure that her new beauty regimen, as well as her preferred form of entertainment, remained uninterrupted. According to historian Margaret Nicholas, she and her confederates roamed the area after dark in search of fresh victims, though that allegation sounds a bit too gothic to be credible. At the castle the girls were systematically slaughtered, their blood collected in vats and buckets. If a victim was particularly beautiful, Elizabeth was reputed to have imbibed her blood. According to local lore the countess would sometimes bite the necks, shoulders, and breasts of these girls, devouring their flesh.

Even if the last accusation was fanciful to the point of straining credulity, it becomes plausible enough, given the other atrocities Elizabeth was believed to have committed.
It is a sad comment on the culture of sixteenth-century Hungary, that countless young peasant women went missing and the authorities never bothered to search for them. No one dared speak out against the Báthory family, even if they had their suspicions; and other members of the nobility were loath to betray one of their own.

Elizabeth wasn’t even discreet about cleaning up after herself, and no one else might have been around to mop up the gore, since her supply of domestics eventually dried up, so to speak. Rotting corpses and mutilated bodies dotted the castle’s hallways and corridors.

After more than three decades of wholesale kidnapping, torture, and mutilation, Elizabeth ran out of peasants. She managed to purchase the service of a few more by telling their families that their daughters were being given the opportunity to serve the illustrious Báthory family. Naturally, the countess neglected to inform them that it was as a moisturizer.

But in 1609 came a stroke of good news. Erzsi Majorova, a local widow who had become one of Elizabeth’s confidantes, informed her that she’d been doing it all wrong for years. No wonder she was getting wrinkles and crows’ feet, aging despite her best efforts! She’d been using peasants! The way to ensure a permanently youthful complexion was to bathe in the blood of virginal aristocrats!

So Elizabeth cleverly advertised for young women of the minor nobility to attend a sort of finishing school at Castle Csejthe, accepting twenty-five girls at a time to learn “the social graces appropriate to their class.” The young ladies were indeed finished—but not in the way their families had anticipated. And after several young noblewomen permanently disappeared, people began to notice; the rumors even reached Vienna, the epicenter of the Holy Roman Empire.

As early as 1602 a courageous Lutheran minister named István Magyari complained to the local and Viennese authorities, but nothing was done. Elizabeth’s family was fully aware of her crimes, but dismissed any mention of them as malicious gossip and idle supposition, as well as the superstition of unlettered peasants.

Finally, in 1610, her dark deeds were brought to light after four corpses of young girls that had been carelessly tossed over the castle walls were discovered. Magyari had long suspected some ghoulish scenario after Elizabeth had asked him to discreetly bury some bloodless corpses; at long last, the local officials agreed to hear his allegations.

No one cared about dozens, if not hundreds, of missing peasant girls; but the disappearance of so many aristocratic young ladies bore investigation. Thanks to István Magyari, the evidence of Elizabeth’s atrocities eventually reached King Matthias II of Hungary. Although he had undoubtedly heard of Elizabeth’s brutality, he had dithered for years before finally having to confront it. Why? He owed the Bathory family money! But it eventually became convenient for Matthias to take the matter in hand because a cornerstone of his reign was to curb the increasing power of the nobility. By bringing the Blood Countess to justice Matthias would make an example of the Báthorys (who ruled Transylvania at the time) to any nobles who might be getting too big for their breeches.

Matthias II of Hungary, Holy Roman Emperor

In December 1610, eight years after István Magyari first spoke up about the dark doings at Castle Csejthe, King Matthias dispatched the Lord Palatine of Hungary, Count György Thurzó, to raid the castle.

But Thurzó already knew about Elizabeth’s crimes; he was a relative of the Báthory family. However, he accepted his commission, and on his arrival at Castle Csejthe, discovered that his kinswoman’s atrocities were even worse than he had imagined. He nearly tripped over the corpse of a girl in the main hall; then a groan grabbed his attention. It came from a dying girl whose body was so pierced with holes that she resembled a sieve.

Dead and mostly dead girls were found in a number of holding cells. In the basement several more victims were discovered hanging from the rafters, their bodies slit open and dripping blood into large vats placed on the floor below them that would be used for another of the countess’s rejuvenating soaks.

After Thurzó ordered the excavation of the basement floor, another fifty corpses were uncovered. A maidservant named Zusanna directed him to Elizabeth’s desk where he found a ledger containing a tally, in her handwriting, of her victims. Some 650 names were on the list, though her confederates would later dispute this number, placing the total body count at four to five dozen. However, between 100 and 200 bodies were removed from the castle by Thurzó’s investigators.

Elizabeth’s accomplices, Dorottya (“Dorka”) Szentes, Ilona Jó, and a washerwoman named Katarína Benická, were arrested. Also arrested was Elizabeth’s dwarf, János Újváry, nicknamed both Ibis and Ficzko, who has been characterized by one historian as retarded. Erzi Majorova managed to escape, but she was subsequently apprehended.

Some historians claim that Elizabeth was arrested along with her servants; others state that because she was a noblewoman she could not be arrested. Because aristocrats were not permitted to be placed on trial, Elizabeth was never called upon to testify in her defense. In any event, if she had been found guilty and executed for her crimes, her property would have been forfeited to the crown. Naturally, it remained in the best interests of the Báthory family to hold onto their real estate at all costs.

On January 7, 1611, Elizabeth’s accomplices were placed on trial before a panel of twenty judges. Two hundred witnesses testified against the absent countess. What they had to say undoubtedly shocked the court. For example, it came out during the trial that a twelve-year-old girl named Pola had managed to escape Elizabeth’s clutches but was pursued by Dorka and Ilona who brought her back to the castle. Pola was placed inside a spherical cage lined with dozens of spikes. As the cage was hauled up by a pulley, the unfortunate child was pierced all over and bled to death. And one of Elizabeth’s diary entries referred to a young maid who had died too quickly for her demise to provide much amusement; she had deemed the girl “too small.”

Finally a verdict was rendered: The servant girl Zusanna was acquitted. Katarína was imprisoned for life. The retarded dwarf Ficzko was beheaded and then burned. Erzi, Dorka, and Ilona were all pronounced guilty of being witches and because their fingers had been quite literally “dipped in the blood of Christians” [Lewis, p 38] had them ripped from their hands with hot pincers, a weapon with which they were undoubtedly all-too-familiar.
Since the countess’s rank prevented her from being tried, her relatives took it upon themselves to exact punishment—which conveniently kept her property within the family. Confined by her relations to her bedchamber in Castle Csejthe, Elizabeth was no longer considered a danger to anyone and remained out of reach of King Matthias. Slits in the walls allowed her a bit of light and air and permitted food and water to be passed to her.

Her house arrest lasted a little more than three years. On August 21, 1614 the fifty-four-year-old countess was discovered lying face down in her makeshift prison, having recently breathed her last. She was buried in the church at Csejthe, but the villagers grew too vociferous about having a mass murderess reposing among them, so Elizabeth’s body was moved to the Báthory family crypt located near her birthplace, at Ecsed.

It has been suggested that the reason charges were never brought against Elizabeth Báthory herself was because the king owed her money, but moreover, because she was innocent: the scapegoated lesbian daughter of a powerful Protestant family that dared to oppose the (Catholic) Hapsburg emperors. But if that were the case, then it is unlikely the Báthorys would have been either so prominent or so feared. Could it really be true that people kept their mouths shut about the goings-on at Csejthe Castle because there was in fact nothing going on? And if religious dissent was at the heart of the matter, why was the man who ultimately blew the whistle on Elizabeth a Lutheran minister—one who shared her religious views, rather than opposed them? Some things don’t tally and we may never have all the answers because documents are either sealed in Hungary’s archives or are too difficult to decipher because of their age and the obscurity of the seventeenth-century form of the language.

Although we may view Elizabeth’s countryman Vlad Dracula as a mass murderer, he might have argued in his defense (if he didn’t impale you first), that his brutality was a necessary evil in order to maintain law and order in a culture that lived and died by the sword, as well as to maintain his occasionally tenuous possession of the Wallachian crown. Elizabeth Báthory—the “Blood Countess”—was also a royal mass murderer; but there was no political rationale for her outsized brutality. Her atrocities were committed for sport, though admittedly there came a time when they became a vital part of her skin care regimen. Vanity never had a higher, or more gruesome, price.

Have you ever heard of Elizabeth Báthory? Do you believe the stories about her?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Who Let the Dogs Out? At Long Last, My Review of WOLF HALL

WINTER, 1533: an eerie noise pierces the London night. “Is there loups in this kingdom,” a young French émigré asks his new mentor and surrogate father Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell replies, “I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners.”

They may not have thick gray coats and fangs, but Hilary Mantel’s London is full of wolves, of the human and equally carnivorous kind: from clergymen to courtiers, to concubines, to the king himself, Henry VIII. Hence the title WOLF HALL, though it means something else as well, something quite literal. Wolf Hall is also the name of the Seymour family’s estate—a den of carnivores with a father that eats his young, so to speak. The patriarch Sir John Seymour, father of Jane, her sister Lizzie, and her soon-to-be famous brothers Edward and Thomas, stole Edward’s wife Catherine Filliol and had children by her. The relationship was considered incestuous, Edward repudiated Catherine and had their marriage annulled. Her children were declared bastards and Catherine was banished to a convent. The reader can infer from this little domestic scandal the parallels to Henry VIII’s incestuous relationships with his first two wives: Henry slept with Mary Boleyn prior to wedding her younger sister; and Katharine f Aragon was first been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur. Whether or not their union was considered incestuous leads to the trial of the sixteenth century.

Winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction, WOLF HALL begins in the late 1520s (with several pages of flashback to Cromwell’s impoverished and violent childhood in Putney) and ends in the summer of 1535. England at the time was edging toward a future no one could fully imagine. For Henry, eager to rid himself of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, in order to wed the striving, ambitious, manipulative commoner Anne Boleyn, history was moving at a glacial pace; while for his former Chancellor, the crackerjack lawyer and theologian Sir Thomas More, the velocity was dizzying and needed to be halted.

After countless novels featuring at their epicenters Anne Boleyn and other women of the Tudor Court, WOLF HALL offers an original and refreshing take on the era. As we dog the footsteps and enter the private thoughts of the narrator, Thomas Cromwell, we visit the places where wives and mistresses, and even Anne Boleyn—the usual suspects at the center of Tudor era historical fiction—are personae non grata. As I mentioned in my preliminary review of the novel, we are taken behind the arrases, into the corridors of power and into the minds of the men who set the rules and who, with impunity, seek to change them. Some are true believers and others are masters of expedience, their eyes on the highest rung of the ladder and their consciences fluid and malleable, as circumstances dictate. Memories are long and revenge is a game for the patient.

Self-made commoner Thomas Cromwell is the sort of stout, pugnacious man with a dubious past who is so good at his job that his social betters overlook his humble origins even as they mock them. He is a true mercenary; a brawler from the slop-strewn streets of Putney who had to learn to give as good as he got from his perennially drunken father Walter, a brewer and blacksmith. At his age “I used to stick knives in people,” he thinks when he looks at his sweet-tempered son Gregory. After a particularly brutal beating, Cromwell ran away as far as his legs and a ship could take him, eventually becoming a mercenary soldier for the French army, and then a banker in Florence. He is as familiar with counting houses as he is with kitchens, man who can judge the weight of a yard of cloth by running it between his thumb and forefinger as well as he knows the proper weight of a given coin.

He is a survivor by dint of his wits, his tenacity, and his cunning, built like a bear-baiting mastiff, with a temperament to match. And he happens to be in the right place at the right time to rise to dizzying, and unprecedented, heights. The strong-arming consigliere in Henry VIII’s cosa nostra of courtiers, Cromwell advances rung by slippery rung, until he is made Lord Chancellor—the office once held by Thomas More as well as Cromwell’s mentor, Thomas Wolsey, the late cardinal. And he has a strained relationship with Thomas Boleyn, the father of the would-be queen. Yes, as Mantel has Cromwell quip to himself, call out the name Thomas and every man in the room will turn his head.

Mantel’s Cromwell is shrewd, manipulative, pragmatic. He lends money at interest—anathema to Christian practices. He doesn’t care if people don’t like him. He will point-blank demand a promotion, except in the king’s presence where he learned, at Wolsey’s hem how to play the self-effacing toady when the situation demands it. Cromwell’s aim is to be the secular Wolsey, smoothing the path of access to the king (for fees and considerations of course), the way his mentor (as well as the corrupt priests he decries) sell the gullible access to God.

The only sure thing in this era is death. Cromwell takes into his home, Austin Friars, his late sisters’ children, distant relations, and the equivalent of at-risk youths. He not only feeds and clothes them, but he gives them a purpose, a hand-up, and the chance at upward mobility that no one ever gave him. They will become loyal to a fault. The girls will make good marriages. Yet even as a doting father figure, rarely does Cromwell’s vulnerability surface; rather, he endeavors to suppress it at every turn. One of the rare times we are privy to the man behind the mask is in his relationship with his wife Liz—and even so, he will betray her memory, embarking on a new liaison in much the same way that the king, Henry VIII did after he cast aside Mary Boleyn. The parallel is not lost on the reader.

Cromwell's god is expedience. Only Thomas Cromwell the family man is likeable. Thomas Cromwell the public servant works very hard to appear invulnerable. “He doesn’t mean to give away pieces of himself,” Mantel tells us. “Arrange your faces,” he advises his minions as they prepare to do political battle.

In my preliminary review I mentioned Mantel’s inventive characterizations, notably her version of Thomas More as more sanctimonious than saint. And yet his final confrontations with Cromwell will tug at the reader’s heart, engaging the emotions in ways that the rest of the novel, though we appreciate Mantel’s craft and storytelling skills, do not. For More is the other side of the coin that is Cromwell; and Cromwell knows he has no worthier adversary. When he pleads, more than once, for More to swear to Henry’s new Act of Supremacy, it is Cromwell, and not More, who sounds desperate to preserve a life. Mantel’s characterizations are all the more plausible for their complexity and contradictions. As I mentioned in my preliminary review, Mantel’s Thomas More is brutal and violent and no contemporary reader can excuse certain aspects of his behavior. And yet, in the last fifth of the novel, during a tense scene between the two Thomases, Cromwell and More—More’s unshakeable belief and his devotion to his conscience are laudable, since most of the characters in this novel are so lacking in scruples.

In that standoff between More and Cromwell, pushed to the limit of his patience the latter explodes: “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” he says. “A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church had liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don’t try to make this simple. You know I have respected you? You know I have respected you since I was a child? I would rather see my only son dead, I would rather see them cut off his head, than see you refuse this oath, and give comfort to every enemy of England.”

The writing is masterful. If that had been a dramatic monologue, it would have stopped the show for applause.

Nevertheless, the reader cannot help but side with Cromwell when it comes to the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church at the time—and yet it is Cromwell whose motives are impure. His gods are Money and Power—not so different, in fact, from those princes of the church. Yet Cromwell makes the overwhelmingly cogent point that in the Bible Jesus never singled out one of his disciples and told him he would be the Pope as would his descendants, nor did Jesus give any of his followers permission to make laws, collect rents, decide who was born legitimate or a bastard ... it’s really quite wonderful how Mantel can make such an unpleasant man appear on the side of the angels—or not, as the literal case stands. Reading about the struggle to reform a corrupt institution—in this case the Catholic Church—reminds one of the battle over healthcare reform that is currently raging on Capitol Hill. Everyone agrees that the system is corrupt, and that a few are becoming enriched by it while many are made to pay through the nose for something that should by right be theirs. And yet the ones resisting reform are those whose purses are the fattest thanks to the old system, while those who would most benefit from reform are reluctant or skeptical about it—scared of changing the status quo for fear it might physically imperil them.

Historically Cromwell could not have cared less about that aspect of reforming a corrupt religion. He aimed to dissolve the monasteries and channel their wealth into the royal treasury thereby enabling Henry VIII to fund his wars, building projects, etc. And Mantel dramatizes that event gorgeously in the novel. Cromwell places the idea into Henry’s head in such a subtle way that Henry thinks it's his own idea.

Mantel’s Henry VIII is what you expect him to be. Ditto for Wolsey. They are men of large appetites, accustomed to getting what they want when they want it. The only major figure in the novel that did not work as well for me was Anne Boleyn. The novelist gives us the shrewd shrew that many authors before her have written. But lacking that crucial scene or two where she truly dazzles with her exotic beauty and sublime grace (because we always see her concentrated intent to manipulate her audience); and without a scene where we see the workings of her much vaunted intellect, we don’t have a woman that Henry will wait seven years for, let alone overturn the Christian religion to wed and bed.
Outside of the king’s presence, courtiers salivate over her as well, long before she becomes queen; yet the reader never sees what they must see in her; in fact, she clearly disdains the men in their very presence, so how could they be so blind? We hear of her quarrels with Henry, her sharp tongue, her fierce temper. We see how she treats other women, especially her sister Mary, with malice and cruelty. Where is the Anne the king fell in love with? Even Cromwell, that hard nut, eventually becomes smitten by her physical charms; (he fantasizes sexually about both Boleyn sisters).

Mary Boleyn, on the other hand, becomes very likeable, though Mantel makes skilled use of historical rumors that have been bandied about over the centuries surrounding the other, older Boleyn girl’s relationship with the king. Operating on the premise that if Anne is holding out for marriage, it’s better for Henry’s sexual urges to be satisfied by someone within the family, Mary remains Henry’s unwilling plaything long after her marriage to William Carey and into her widowhood. Here, the king is believed to be the father of her son, also named Henry. And even after he has wedded and bedded Anne, Henry is slaking his lust with her older sister, if not their cousin Madge Shelton as well. Mantel’s libidinous Mary is almost as canny as Anne in that both young women are aware of the power of their own allure. Each wields sex as a weapon as skillfully as Cromwell handles a knife, knowing just when to give that fatal twist, or estoc.

Mantel also makes literary hay from a centuries-old rumor that when Henry was a youth, he slept with the mother of the Boleyn girls, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn. It strains credulity, but that’s why they call it historical fiction. The author also consistently refers to Wolsey as the son of an Ipswich butcher, because that’s what history has handed down to us; Wolsey’s father was in fact a grazier. But slaughtering cattle is such a squalid profession compared to herding them, that regurgitating that sort of teensy factual error is entirely forgivable; besides, it’s fiction, and her characters get plenty of mileage out of disdaining the butcher's son.

Mantel stealthily introduces us to seemingly minor characters who, the well-versed Tudor geek immediately recognizes, will play a much larger role in the future. In fact the entire novel is about the future—of England, and of the Church, and of Mantel’s vast cast of characters. Wolf Hall is the home of Henry's future wife--and not the one he spends the better part of the novel trying to marry.
The first time we see a homely, diffident blond scuttling from Anne Boleyn’s rooms, the intuitive reader knows already who she is and what role she will eventually play. The fun part is getting there; in Mantel’s novel, while Henry doesn’t look twice at Jane Seymour, the widowed Cromwell does, disappointed when he learns she will return to her father’s estate in the country. And a young lutenist initially in Wolsey’s employ, with a penchant for gazing goggle-eyed at Anne and gawking at the nobility, as well as for listening at keyholes, is of course Mark Smeaton.

Mark, along with the Francises—Bryan and Weston; Henry Norris, and William Brereton, Henry’s smug quartet of courtiers (whom we first see playing devils in a masque depicting the fall of Cardinal Wolsey), will lose their heads on Tower Hill within a year after we turn the final page, victims of a trumped up charge of treason for bedding Anne Boleyn. So too will Anne’s brother George, Viscount Rochford, a cold, power-hungry popinjay who hates his wife and spends an inordinate time getting the silk lining beneath his slashed sleeves to puff perfectly.

Part of the deliciousness of the novel is in knowing that some of the most arrogant characters are headed for a fall, including the novel’s protagonist, who will part company with his own head on July 28, 1540—Henry’s wedding day to wife number five, Kathryn Howard—for brokering the king’s disastrous marriage with Anne of Cleves, and for becoming too big for his breeches. There but for the grace of Henry go any of them.

Other characters, including those Cromwell has little use for, such as Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester; and particularly the politician Thomas Wriothesley, whom he refers to as “Call-Me-Risley”—or just “Call-Me”--will not only outlive Cromwell, but “Call-Me” will one day have his job as Lord Chancellor.

Although WOLF HALL falls squarely into the category of historical fiction, the voice-y third-person present tense owes more of a debt to literary fiction. Tenses change within the same paragraph. Words are laid out like playing cards, sometimes deliberately forming grammatically incomplete sentences of the kind that tend to send historical fiction copyeditors into a self-righteous tizzy. Dialogue is not always set within quotation marks, often blending with a character’s inner thoughts.

The novel ends with plans for a royal progress, almost a play on words for what will come next. It is summer, 1535. Sir Thomas More has just martyred himself on Tower Hill. Anne Boleyn’s thousand days are already numbered, although she has yet to realize it. In damp and drafty Kimbolton Katherine of Aragon has a little more than half a year to live. Come September, Henry and his courtiers will visit Wolf Hall, the seat of the Seymour family. If you know your Tudor history, that visit is when Henry’s serious infatuation with Jane Seymour truly began, no doubt disappointing Mantel’s Cromwell, who is tempted at various points in the novel to stake his own claim for her. We can’t help but laugh at his misguided view that she is so plain and unprepossessing that no one else would ever want her anyway. But in her final sentence Mantel leaves us with a hopeful Chancellor; the man who has finally made peace with his wife’s passing and is ready to make his move on the unattractive little blond who has haunted his thoughts for years. Little can anyone know that the biggest wolf in the halls of England will snatch up the little rabbit.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Plagiarism: Setting the Record Straight

There are clear cut ethics when it comes to quoting other people verbatim and not attributing it to them. With regard to the current firestorm as to whether part of my preliminary review of Hilary Mantel's blockbuster novel WOLF HALL was plagiarized by someone the following day in their own blog, here is the paragraph from my preliminary review that I posted here on Saturday, October 10.

Winner of Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize, the novel is certainly my cuppa. For one thing, I love "voice-y" writing. And Mantel tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the self-made son of a violent Putney brewer and blacksmith, in the third person present tense, most often referring to the protagonist, one of history's more famous anti-heroes, as "he." It gives the novel a simultaneous sense of immediacy and distance, a seemingly oxymoronic balance that is hard to strike; yet Mantel finds that razor's edge and remains there for 532 pages. There are a few drawbacks to this tone, however. Since there are several scenes where more than one man is in the room, referring to Cromwell as "he" occasionally makes for confusion, and I have found myself needing to re-read passages to make sure I know who's talking. Knowing who's talking is exceptionally important in a world where one's political and religious opinions can be calculated by scant degrees.

And this is the original wording (it has since been revised) from Elizabeth Mahon's review, posted on the following day, Sunday, October 11, on her blog,

Mantel tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell (1485?-1540)the son of a violent Putney blacksmith, in the third person present tense, most often referring to the protagonist as "he." It gives the novel a simultaneous sense of immediacy and distance. The reader feels like they are right there in the room as the wheeling and dealing is going on. There are a few drawbacks to this, however. Since there are several scenes where there is more than one man in the room, referring to Cromwell as "he" makes it incredibly confusing at times, and I had to re-read sections to make sure I knew who was talking. It doesn't help that so many of the characters are named Thomas.

The similarities are far too close for coincidence. Not only have my words been used, but the opinions contained within them. Sure, people may share similar opinions of any given thing, but we would hope they would express those opinions in their own words.

I do have copies of both blog pages printed out so that I know what the original date-stamped text was in each case. She has since revised her text, which is in itself an admission of wrongdoing. I would accept her apology and a promise not to plagiarize in the future. In fact, if she did not troll my blogs, or my Facebook page, she would not be aware of what I wrote in either venue and could therefore never place herself in a position of copying my text into her own.

But here's a curious conundrum: if the party in question denies that she plagiarized my blog, how would she realize I had been referring to her? Because one of the odder things about this is that I do not mention her, or her blog, by name on my Facebook wall, nor did anyone else; and yet she knew I was referring to her, and had to post something about it on her blog, as though she were the wronged party.

And since she is liable to read this post, a chastened "oh, shit, yes I admit I copied from your blog; I have learned my lesson, and I would never dream of doing so again; now let's shake hands like ladies" apology would be accepted.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Coming soon ... my review of WOLF HALL

Hilary Mantel's remarkable novel WOLF HALL, a sweeping story of political one-upmanship behind the arrases at the Tudor Court will be released on Tuesday, October 13.

Winner of Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize, the novel is certainly my cuppa. For one thing, I love "voice-y" writing. And Mantel tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the self-made son of a violent Putney brewer and blacksmith, in the third person present tense, most often referring to the protagonist, one of history's more famous anti-heroes, as "he." It gives the novel a simultaneous sense of immediacy and distance, a seemingly oxymoronic balance that is hard to strike; yet Mantel finds that razor's edge and remains there for 532 pages. There are a few drawbacks to this tone, however. Since there are several scenes where more than one man is in the room, referring to Cromwell as "he" occasionally makes for confusion, and I have found myself needing to re-read passages to make sure I know who's talking. Knowing who's talking is exceptionally important in a world where one's political and religious opinions can be calculated by scant degrees.

The novel is full of sly wit and "in-jokes" for those well versed in the Tudor era, in that Mantel makes excellent use of actual historical events, weaving them seamlessly and plausibly into her epic (which at 532 pages, it certainly is), as well as employing, verbatim, remarks actually uttered by the players, though she will sometimes shift the location, timeline, and context to suit her own purposes as a storyteller. However, that's why they call it historical fiction. And Mantel skillfully flashes her license to invent.

I have fewer than 200 pages still to read; thus far, there isn't a single likeable person in the book among the key players. And yet it is a testament to Mantel's craft as a writer that the novel is a page-turner nonetheless. Mercifully, she does not sanitize the personalities of the historically objectionable or complex. In fact, for her own purposes, she does the opposite in some cases, inverting the long-held image of Sir Thomas More as a saintly and principled man, and instead turning him into a religious zealot as bloodthirsty as his adversaries. He scourges, tortures and burns those who deny that the host is the literal body of Christ and who disseminate copies of the Bible in English. Mantel's More is a perfectly plausible creation, and who's to say that he is not more "real" than the venerated image in the history books? And yet you wonder why history lauds him while it (with good reason) castigates her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell,

Obviously all of the players are long dead. Readers who are well versed in Tudor history know how they died as well as the circumstances of their demise. Cromwell rises here, and we will leave him at the apex of fortune's wheel ... but he, too, will fall -- as hard as many of those he mocks, including Thomas More.

I have much, much more to say about WOLF HALL, and hope to get it posted by the book's release date. I am not sure that the book will be as much of an enjoyable read to those who get their Tudor history via half-dressed actors on Showtime, or who are not terribly familiar with the actual events of the era and the identities of the key players, their relationships with the king, Henry VIII, and with each other. In Mantel's novel, many characters rise to dizzying heights on the wheel of fortune; and it enriches the experience of reading WOLF HALL to be grounded in 16th century English history, and therefore to be aware of how the characters tumbled as the wheel spun downward, and who was standing behind them waiting to reap the benefits of their demise. It makes the read that much more delicious to know that Cromwell derides those who we know will outlive, outplay, and outlast him.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Royal Wedding Gowns -- "In or Out?"

Amanda McCabe has a terrific post up today over at Risky Regencies. The timing was perfect, because I just finished reviewing the second pass page proofs of NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES and could not have wished for a more delightful way to kick back and relax. Ogle these gorgeous wedding gowns. Salivate. Imagine yourself in them, either on your own big day or in a royal wedding.

Which ones can you imagine yourself wearing?

And if you were one of these royal brides, who would you most like to be, and why?

The gowns may be "in or out" in Project Runway parlance ... but for better or worse, each of the couples I profile in NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES had to "make it work"!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Faint Tinkle of Royal Wedding Bells?

Your timing is impeccable, Your Highness ... if true.

According to a September 21 squib in ( a confidant (who may no longer be one by now) of Britain's Prince William and his on-again/off-again girlfriend of eight years, Kate Middleton, have set a wedding date.

Vanity Fair alleges that the couple's university chum Jules Knight (a member of the boy band Blake -- which means absolutely nothing to me, so maybe some of you readers can enlighten me) have set a June 2012 date for their "I do's."

The reason for the delay, according to Knight (lovely name for a prince's pal, isn't it? How teddibly, teddibly fitting!) is that Wills wants to wait until he turns thirty (nothing like emulating your father's timetable regarding his BrideQuest, eh, wot?). Apparently, "Kate is fine with that." Additionally, says Knight, the second in line to the British throne wants to focus on his RAF (Royal Air Force, for the uninitiated) training.

Kate Middleton -- with, Prince Harry: her future brother-in-law, perhaps?

According to an article in, one of their pals said: “He is very careerminded and wants to get as high up as he can in the force. Kate knows he loves her and wants to marry her but also understands what it means to be the girlfriend of the future king.”

If there is a June 2012 date already set, those of us who have tripped down the aisle, or at least taken the trip, know that you need that much time to plan a wedding, half of which is generally devoted to squabbling among the future in-laws! At least they might not have trouble booking a band: Blake is purportedly Kate's first choice, so I doubt they'll have to worry about the band having another booking on their special day.

Your Highness, Miss Middleton -- I wish you all the best. And in the fairy tale maelstrom that the world continues to stir up regarding your royal romance, and (perhaps) your upcoming nuptials, may you both be able to plant your feet firmly on the ground and remain rooted to the realities of marriage.

Will they or won't they hear wedding bells? In June 2012? Sooner? Later? Never?

Please chime in!