Monday, 1 October 2012

Studying Literature - Seminar 1: 'Wolf Hall'

Yes, I have decided to do write ups of my lectures. Not only will they help me order the many excited thoughts in my head but some of you, ok maybe 1 one you, might find this interesting. Today, this very Monday, I started my degree with my first lecture in Studying Literature. Imagine when, last Friday, I found out that by today I was supposed to have finished 'Wolf Hall', Hilary Mantel's 650-page book on Thomas Cromwell. Thankfully, I had bought the book before the lecture because Moodle informed me of my destiny that morning. That way I was able to avoid the rush to the bookstore on campus, where 'Wolf Hall' had sold out by the end of the lecture. Am I the only one who is puzzled by the fact these books sold out while the lecture was still going? Anyways, of course I wasn't able to finish the book because Freshers-week doesn't stop until Sunday. But, being almost 400 pages in by the time the lecture started, I felt rather prepared.

I have decided that I absolutely love lectures. This is exactly how I want to be taught. My lecturers were telling me what they know, I was furiously making notes and felt smarter at the end of the hour. The lecturer started of by discussing the term 'historical fiction'. There are those literary critics which say that 'history is textual' (Bennet & Royle 2009, 119). Everyone knows the saying that history is written by the victors, yet few realize how true this is. What we see is fact is what someone once decided to write down. In that sense, literature is part of history in that what we write down will be the source for others to judge our presence, their past. This is where the scary-looking term 'historiographical metafiction' came in. All it means is:
'fiction that is self-conscious about how it represents the past, drawing attention to the artificiality and textuality of its language and form'
Historical fiction presents history, yet makes it somehow contemporary enough so a modern audience can connect with it.

My lecturer has a true passion for 'Wolf Hall' because while reading novels she is usually aware of their artificiality, whereas in 'Wolf Hall' she almost forgot she was reading historical fiction. There are some features to the novel that make it a very present and intimate read, even though the novel takes place in Tudor England. First of all, Mantel uses the third person for Cromwell, always. This leads to very confusing sentences where you are never sure which 'him' or 'he' Cromwell is. Not that his first name, Thomas, gives much of a clue either because that seems to have been a popular name. The novel is also written in present tense, something that I believe is crucial in making a historical fiction novel work, if it's a true historical fiction novel. Most people know what happened to Cromwell and during his life and therefore the ending and plot aren't much of a surprise. Yet the present tense makes sure the reader is caught in the moment together with Cromwell, rather than looking at him from the outside. And thirdly, although the narrative is third person, it is coloured by Cromwell's opinions and beliefs. So we are very close to him, even though there is a certain distance between him and the reader.

That was just the first 30 minutes of the lecture. The second half seemed to go a lot faster as another lecturer came in and wondered how and why this novel is interesting to modern readers. Cromwell himself was very much a self made man in a time of great social change and turmoil, which almost sounds too current to be true. The 16th century meant significant poverty next to massive wealth, fear for civil wars and massive changes in national identity for England. The story of just one man's role in this seems uninteresting but it is fascinating to see how influential Cromwell was. One of the questions we are meant to ponder for next week is how we feel about someone who rises to the top so steadily, coming from nothing. Cromwell is usually presented as a conniving and sly person, the Holbein portrait probably doesn't help, yet this novel gives him a kinder, compassionate side as well. So all that is left for me is to finish the last 200-odd pages and decide what I think about Cromwell. We were also asked to find out how much Henry VIII spent on art. After fruitless searches, I found a 5-page paper called 'Henry VIII: A Machiavellian Musical Monarch'. To say I am excited would be too much, but I am rather intruiged. What I already found out is that he employed, next to Holbein, a female painter: Levina Teerline. That is rather extraordinary, don't you think?

So, what do you think of my first lecture? I am absolutely in love, but does this sound like your cup of tea? And as an extra question: should I watch 'The Tudors' again, as "background" to this novel?


  1. What a great idea to write about your lectures! I am studying literature as well, and in my first year, our main lecturer (who is probably Shakespeare's biggest fan) was talking about history vs literature as well. And he asked us to think about why it is called hisstory instead of herstory :D

    Great post! Thanks for sharing with such enthusiasm.

  2. I LOVE that you're doing this! I was desperate to study Literature at Uni and now I get to see a little more into a course! Definitely keeping a look out for these posts!
    Sophie x