My obsession with the Tudor family predates the much-feted release of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, but just as my interest was waning I picked up the first volume of the Cromwell Trilogy and I am once again well and truly hooked. There are countless volumes of history and biography on the Tudors and other English ruling families, and they are well worth reading, but a good part of the fascination of Mantel's historical fiction is her uncanny ability to breathe life into the most unexpected figures, bringing us to them and their time, rather than they to us. Here are nine books sure to please the fan of Wolf Hall:
The Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley
In this gynocentric rendering of the Arthurian legends, the women - Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Igraine, Viviane, Elaine - are at the fore, while the men, so familiar from all other interpretations from Malory to T. H. White to Disney, recede into the background. The question of whether the novel can be considered feminist or not is a complex one, but in either case, the book is an engrossing foray into pagan England as it undergoes the first advances of the Christian juggernaut and a fascinating reevaluation of the standard ideas about medieval society and women's roles within it. Fans of Mantel's painstakingly researched work will appreciate the wealth of period detail, particularly as far as paganism is concerned, and the sheer breadth of spiritual and psychological perspectives.
Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
Although this novel was written for young adults (it won the Newbery Honor), its sardonic sense of humor, fantastically accurate and detailed depiction of medieval England, and surprisingly erudite wit make it a a worthwhile read for adults. Written in the form of a diary, the book follows Birdy, the clever and scheming young daughter of an English knight, determined to escape the revolting marital advances of a series of ancient, lecherous noblemen, whether they have social status and wealth or not. The book makes a profound feminist statement, all the more refreshing given that it was written for girls, without refuting the essential realities of the period. For fans of Wolf Hall, Catherine, Called Birdy is a quick, delightful foray into a period as fascinating as that of the Tudors. Equally wonderful, though much shorter, is The Midwife's Apprentice.
Versailles - Kathryn Davis
Kathryn Davis is nothing if not a subtle writer. Her characters dwell in liminal spaces, in the cracks and fissures of the metaphysical tissue of time. Versailles is not a straightforward work of historical fiction; rather, it imagines Marie Antoinette as a figure that exists across time, as though the novel were magically beamed from the shadowy mind of her ghost, still walking the halls of the famed palace. Those looking for a museum-piece rendering of the glory days of Louis XVI will be disappointed, but those open to a more psychologically engulfing and deeply subjective point of view will find riches in this short but profound novel.
The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
One of my all-time favorite novels, The Name of the Rose is easily the most erudite mystery novel of all time. Its plot concerns a lost and precious book by Aristotle, a labyrinthine library of forbidden books, numerous gruesome murders, and the inquisitional crackdown on heretical sects. In 1327, the Franciscan Guglielmo of Baskerville and his protege Adso of Melk arrive at a Benedictine monastery in the north of Italy to attend a theological disputation; they are met, however, with a curiously marked corpse. Though the plot is as complex and surprising as one could wish, Eco's extensive rendering of the monks' conversations, on subjects ranging from theology and literary theory to optics, are a veritable intellectual smorgasbord. One imagines that such a novel would have thrilled the brilliant, semi-heretical Thomas Cromwell, in many respects a close counterpart to Guglielmo.
Romola - George Eliot
Set in the turmoil of apocalyptic preacher Savonarola's revolutionary, religiously extreme takeover of fifteenth century Florence, Eliot's novel has as its aim the same project as Mantel's Cromwell Trilogy, that is, to examine in kaleidoscopic detail the intellectual, political, and religious panorama of a fraught and distant historical period; like Mantel, she succeeds with exceptional brilliance. Romola, the intellectually precocious daughter of a widowed scholar, marries the superficially bright, but fickle and shallow Tito. Her burgeoning development as a thinker and the disillusionment of marriage to a man strange to her and deeply entangled in potentially lethal schemes ultimately lead her down a path to near-utopian, feminist enlightenment. To my mind, this is, of all Eliot's works, her most boldly feminist.
Discourse on Free Will - Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther
Readers of Wolf Hall get something of a crash course in the theology and politics of the great schism, but a deeper understanding of the theological conflicts that had such far-reaching, paradigm-shifting, not to mention lethal, effects on European society will significantly heighten (and complicate) one's appreciation of the devious schemes of Cardinal Wolsey and the dark extremism of Thomas More (a rather boastful friend of Erasmus). This volume, essential to students of both theology and European history, consists of Erasmus's "The Free Will" and Luther's "The Bondage of the Will," public discourses on one of the thorniest issues at stake in the schism: whether man is endowed with free will.
You Never Knew Her As I Did! - Mollie Hunter
Like Catherine, Called Birdy, this is a superb young adult novel (despite its melodramatic title) and well worth reading for adults. The book's protagonist is a young page, Will Douglas, whose admiration for, and perhaps infatuation with, the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, impels him to ever more dangerous schemes to free her from Elizabeth I's control. Hunter does a superlative job filtering the complicated power plays and political plottings through the perspective of a young boy on the sidelines, not unlike Mantel's use of Cromwell's perspective to give us access to such figures as Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn.
Redwall - Brian Jacques
The first of a series that would eventually comprise no less than twenty two volumes, Redwall is a thrilling, pseudo-medieval adventure that takes place in a world populated by talking animals. In this first volume, Matthias the mouse sets off on a quest to reclaim the famed sword of Martin the Warrior when Redwall Abbey is besieged by the villainous Cluny the Scourge, a rat. Jacques created an impressively vast and complex world, the political, social, and spiritual dimensions of which bear significant similarity to the fantastic world of chivalric literature, yet achieve a unique richness that stands well outside human history. Though many critics have complained that the series became formulaic once Jacques had established his story-telling structure, one could argue that this reliable composition adds to the pleasures of the series.
The Once and Future King - T. H. White
Comprised of four volumes (a fifth, The Book of Merlyn, is quite slight and perhaps better read as an epilogue), The Once and Future King tells the story of the boy Arthur, student of Merlyn and future king of England, continuing to his ill-fated romance with Guenever and equally ill-fated friendship with Lancelot. T. H. White's interpretation of the Arthurian legend (his principal source seems to be Malory) is my very favorite, its eclectic and very British style an amalgam of medieval, romantic, and thoroughly twentieth century approaches. If Mantel and C. S. Lewis somehow merged and attempted to write Wolf Hall and The Chronicles of Narnia at once, this novel might be the delectable result.