Monday, January 16, 2017

Psychoanalytic criticism: Man is Wolf to Man

First Things has made one of its February 2017 subscriber access articles available for free: Patricia Snow discusses the personal background behind Hilary Mantel's Cromwell novels:

Psychoanalytic criticism may have fallen out of favor, but it has not ceased to be useful. Even so bare an outline of Mantel’s life, drawn from her 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, makes clear the connections between Mantel’s biographical backstory and the goings-on at Henry VIII’s court. In her novels about Cromwell, all of Mantel’s formative issues are in play: the plot-driving engine of marital unhappiness; divorce and the impossibility of divorce; ambiguous sexual situations; the desirability but also the powerlessness of children. Mantel’s early experiences explain not only her richly ambivalent attitude toward her Tudor characters, but also her impressive “negative capability” as their artist—her ability, that is, out of the small circle of her original family, either to play or to cast all the parts.

For example, she herself is Mary, the king’s awkwardly placed oldest daughter who is banished from his presence together with a rejected, painfully dignified spouse (Katherine of Aragon). She is also Elizabeth, another unwanted but ultimately triumphant (if sterile) daughter who, at a stroke, lost a parent (Anne Boleyn) as a child. Mantel’s mother, of course, is Henry, the books’ capricious, death-dealing sovereign, and Jack is Anne Boleyn, the sallow Protestant parvenu. But Mantel’s mother is also Boleyn: small and catlike in her movements, unscrupulous and shape-shifting. Cross-referencing Mantel’s memoir with the novels, the reader encounters the same clusters of descriptors again and again, shared out among Mantel’s mother, Jack, and Anne Boleyn, or among Cromwell, Mantel herself as a child, and Cromwell’s small daughter, Anne. Sometimes a phrase or sentiment from the memoir is lifted virtually unchanged into the novels, as when Mantel’s mother and Jack, like Henry and Anne, are described as “[the] couple who had endured, to be together, so much adverse public opinion.”

In the novels, Mantel is reimagining the small-scale squalor of her parents’ domestic arrangements on a large scale, as consequential history. The exercise may have been exhilarating, or cathartic, as when history requires that she banish Queen Katherine and her daughter, Mary, not to a yellowing bedroom down a dimly lit hall, but to far-flung palaces. But any temptation on Mantel’s part to use the novels to romanticize or exorcise her own past is balanced in the writing by an equally strong authorial impulse to expose it.

For example, there is Mantel’s puzzling choice of a title:
Wolf Hall. Scarcely mentioned in the novel that bears its name, Wolf Hall is the family seat of Jane Seymour, the eventual third wife of the king. Halfway through Wolf Hall, in a brief digression, the reader learns that old Sir John Seymour slept with his son’s wife for two years, during which time she gave birth to two boys. Laughing when the scandal of the boys’ dubious parentage becomes known, Anne Boleyn says to Henry, “They could tell Boccaccio a tale, those sinners at Wolf Hall.” Inexplicable as a title choice apart from a familiarity with Mantel’s history, Wolf Hall is the world for Mantel personally. Or as Cromwell puts it to himself elsewhere: homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.

Read the rest there

At the end of the article, Snow points out that The Mirror and the Light, Mantel's third novel about Thomas Cromwell, is taking longer to write (the first two books were published in 2009 and 2012). Snow suggests that killing off her father figure must be hard for Mantel. I wonder if Mantel will respond to Snow's comments: this cuts close to the quick and perhaps the article demonstrates why "Psychoanalytic criticism may have fallen out of favor". Man is wolf to man.

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