Tag Archives: Oliver Cromwell

The Devil’s Mistress or the Devil’s Whore

The_Devil's_WhoreI happened to catch this miniseries on TV this weekend and I found it really engrossing.  It was called The Devil’s Whore in most of the world, but we puritanical Americans needed the modified title of the Devil’s Mistress. Because if you pay her in the street she’s a dirty whore, but if you get her an apartment and buy her some gifts, she’s a classy mistress.  Apparently.

The miniseries is from 2008, and features a lot of well-known actors who have gone on to be quite famous. For the Doctor Who fans, we have John Simm (the Master) as Edward Sexby, and Peter Capaldi (the new Doctor) as the ill-fated Charles I.

Dominic West (the Wire) plays Oliver Cromwell, Andrea Riseborough (W./E., Oblivion) plays fictional Angelica Fanshawe, and Michael Fassbender (every movie ever) plays Thomas Rainsborough. Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr. Grove in Mr. Selfridge) plays Honest John Lilburne.

As you’ll have guessed (if you know even basic British history), this miniseries takes place just before and during the English Civil War.  If you haven’t learned basic British history, here’s the 2 cent tour of the era.  Charles I was a dictator of Scottish descent with a French wife.  That meant people thought he was too close to ‘Papists’, and that his policies would benefit Catholics at the expense of Protestants.  After all the bloodshed and confusion of the 16th century battle between Catholicism and Protestantism in England, the majority of the English were vehemently opposed to ‘Papists’. Charles I and Parliament engaged in a very long struggle for power, which ended with Charles I being beheaded in London.  Oliver Cromwell became the leader of the Long Parliament, and appointed himself ‘Lord Protector’.  Though he’d argued against monarchy, he very quickly established himself as a king in all but name.  This lasted until the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles’ son returning to England after Cromwell’s death.  The monarchy has existed without any real interruption since that time.

This miniseries starts with Angelica Fanshawe preparing to marry her childhood sweetheart, Harry. She’s wealthy and connected; King Charles himself attends and blesses her wedding.

Angelica Fanshawe3 (Andrea Riseborough)

We see brief flashbacks. Angelica was raised by a Catholic mother, during the very violent time just after Protestantism was established in England. Her mother abandoned her for God, and Angelica was (understandably) angry.  She proclaims that there is no god, and that is the first time she gets a vision of a demon.  She sees them all her life.

A lot is going on during the day of her wedding.  John Lilburne is whipped for distributing pamphlets arguing against the tyrannical rule of King Charles. Sexby sees Angelica and immediately falls in love with her, though he is quickly reminded that his social standing (lowly soldier for pay) prevents him from even thinking about her in an untoward way.  The ribbing of his friends causes her groom Harry to have a really pathetic problem with insecurity. He spends the rest of their marriage being jealous and angry, trying to make her give up her independence and her ability to make decisions.  To say I hate him would be an understatement.

Thankfully for me, Harry meets a sticky end at the hands of the ever-more tyrannical Charles I.  We see Angelica’s situation change overnight. She’s no longer wealthy or desired, she’s out on the streets. At the same time, Sexby, Cromwell, and Rainsborough are leading the charge against Charles; they are allied with Honest John Lilburne, but not for long.

article-1086202-027D020F000005DC-344_468x328Episodes 2 and 3 see Angelica change a lot.  She is forced to become independent and to examine the world she’s living in–rather than just accepting it as good based on her own privileged experiences.  *Cue Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘*  As a woman, this is a lot more difficult than for a man. She has no property, no money, no skills.  Starving, she accepts some soup offered to her by a wealthy man.  As soon as she is done eating, he tries to claim his ‘payment’.  After a bit of a tussle, she stabs him to keep him from raping her. Sexby turns up as Angelica is on the run, and helps to protect her from justice.

Angelica finally sees the bitter truth of life for those who aren’t as privileged as she has been.  Her loyalties change and she abandons the royalist cause and takes up with the Roundheads (aka those allied with Parliament in their conflict with the king.  The royalists were called Cavaliers).  She is drawn to Fassbender’s Rainsborough. He is a good mix between the too-earnest and impractical Lilburne and the severely pragmatic Cromwell. The two take up a love affair, but alas.  It’s not to be. Joliffe, the best friend of the man Angelica killed, is after her.  He wants to hang her as a murderess and a whore, and seems to take extreme pleasure in the idea of punishing a woman who wouldn’t give a man what he thought he deserved.

Things turn uglier as the miniseries continues.  Rainsborough and Angelica get married, but he is killed soon after–by his supposed friend Cromwell.  Angelica is pregnant and mourning a second husband, and is soon after arrested and sentenced to hang. She is due to be executed the same day as the king, newly convicted by a brutal Parliament and Cromwell, its leader.

As he can generally be expected to do, Sexby turns up to save Angelica. I won’t spoil what happens in the 4th episode, but it doesn’t turn out particularly well for anyone. I will say that at least one person dies, Sexby has at least one more chance to save Angelica from a terrible fate, and a baby is born at the end.

Here are a few things that struck me about this miniseries:

1-The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Under Charles I, John Lilburne is imprisoned for causing trouble, there is corruption and tyranny from a despotic ruler, and women are under the proverbial boots of incredibly awful men. After Charles I is killed and Cromwell takes over…it’s all the same.  It was a time of great revolution in England, but the changes seemed to be superficial and ineffectual.  Certainly nothing seemed to change for the better. John Lilburne rots in prison for criticizing Charles I, but he dies in prison under the governance of his supposed friends.

2-I have mixed feelings about Sexby.  I think he’s quite heroic and certainly a friend a girl wants to have if she’s going to constantly be in danger of being raped/murdered/executed.  His long slow burn of pining love for her is romantic, when it’s happening on screen.  But if it were real life, I don’t know that I’d feel the same way.  If the miniseries was set in modern times, I feel too much that he would be wearing a fedora and complaining that the girl he liked kept him in the ‘friendzone’. Side note, if you’re unfamiliar with the trope I am discussing, look at a few pages of this tumbr (or this one) and you’ll learn a new breed of  men to avoid. Sexby is a loyal and good friend to Angelica, but it’s quite clear he spends each moment hoping for more, and-once-gets unjustifiably angry and almost violent with her for not feeling what he feels.

While I find Sexby quite engaging and interesting, Angelica tells him she can never love him, and then ‘realizes’ her feelings for him almost the very next time she sees him.  Who wrote that? I have never once had that sort of reversal of feeling. Any women reading this: has this ever happened to you?  Did a man write this? Because I find it really hard to believe.

3-Note to self: do not attempt to lead a happy life during Civil War or revolution.  Both Angelica and Sexby get fucked around by the royalists and the roundheads, and the system in general.  There’s no hope for a happy ending.

4-Why on earth did they make her see the devil?  A lot of the miniseries paints Angelica as a liberated, almost modern, woman, which was very dangerous and could be considered demonic during that (literally) puritanical period.  She’s seen by several of her opponent’s as the Devil’s Whore, because she’s living a life outside social norms.  That’s all pretty powerful and makes me feel so grateful I don’t live in the 17th century. I would have been burned or drowned long ago.  The whole hallucinating a demon thing just seems like a strange distraction. It lessens the lunacy of their claims that she is the Devil’s Whore, and almost gives their accusations some weight.  I don’t understand the purpose of it at all.

Despite my reservations, I think it was a good miniseries.  I found it engrossing and easy to watch, and I did learn some things I never knew about that period of English history.  I take it all with a grain of salt, but a little bit of history and some entertainment are (in my book) a good way to spend an evening.

Book Review: Wolf Hall

9780312429980I had very high hopes for this book. It was the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which is a list that provides me with incredibly good reading every single year.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, and the second of those books (Bringing Up The Bodies) won the Man Booker prize this year. It’s also historical fiction, which I love.  I was entirely ready to love this book.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t.

Wolf Hall is the first book in the ongoing Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel.  Thomas Cromwell was a true historical figure, a close adviser to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII.  Wolf Hall concentrates on the end of Cromwell’s time with Cardinal Wolsey and the beginning of his close relationship with Henry.

The Tudor period seems very popular in the last decade, from the Jonathan Rhys Meyers series, The Tudors to The Other Boleyn Girl. To me, it’s not nearly as interesting a time in England as the Victorian era, but that’s just personal preference. I think this is the first historical fiction I have read set in the 16th century, and I did learn a lot about the period and the history and about Henry VIII.

I usually start my book reviews with a brief synopsis, but I cannot do so with this book.  And therein lies the problem (one of them) with the book.  Things happen, for certain, but not along a traditional plot line with rising action, a climax, and a resolution.  It seems to be more just a recording of things that happen over nearly a decade in these characters’ lives.  No one event is given more weight, importance, or consequences than any other event.  The book has the pace of real life, with the tragic and epic occurring just alongside the everyday and the insignificant. This makes it very realistic, but I think it does not make for good fiction. I couldn’t tell you a specific reason why Mantel started this story where she did and stopped it where she did.  I can’t tell you what I was supposed to glean from this portion of Cromwell’s life.  Since it is a trilogy, the lack of proper ending is understandable–the very last page leads directly into the next book in the series–but there is just no story arch in this book.  Some of the most devastating events happen sporadically in the middle of the book, such as the deaths of some of Cromwell’s family members due to plague.
I just couldn’t get a handle on this story in terms of a recognizable plot.

The book covers a period in English history of religion and monarchy in extreme tension.

Brief history lesson, if you don’t remember your high school classes/that Simpsons episode: Henry VIII was married to Katherine, the Spanish princess. She gave birth to Princess Mary, but was not successful in producing a male heir.  As she aged, Henry VIII became anxious about having someone to take over as King.  At the same time, Anne Boleyn caught his eye as a possible mistress, but she basically teased him and bribed him until he found a way to annul his marriage to Katherine and marry her instead.

At the same time, the reformation of the Catholic church was spreading from Germany (much of it directly resulting from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses), and there were parties in England interested in reforming the church in their country.  These two interests became united in one solution. The king was convinced to break with the church  after the pope refused to grant him an annulment from Katherine.  So what was kind of a personal thing (marriage) became a huge issue that influenced the religion of everyone in England (and the US if you want to argue causation) for several centuries.  The Anglican church became the official church of England, with the Monarchy at its head. For several hundred years, Catholicism was outlawed (except for brief respites).

Okay, enough history.  So this was a huge, very important thing in England all stemming from/hinging upon Henry’s desire for a male heir.  It’s a really fascinating time in history, and Henry and Anne are a very interesting pair.  It should make for a great book.

Unfortunately, the plot is just non-existent. The action has sort of bookends on either side of the reformation. At the beginning, Cardinal Wolsey is just beginning to fall into disfavor and to have his lands and wealth reclaimed by the crown. The action ends with the death of Sir Thomas More, who was I suppose the last holdout stopping the progress of the English Reformation at the time. Other than that, the action just seems to occur in order and have no significance attached to it.

The writing is not bad, but it is very difficult to follow. Each person has different names/titles, and often they are referred to as one and then the other.  Examples include referring to Stephen Gardner as Stephen Gardner, as Gardner, as Bishop of Winchester, as Winchester, as Master Secretary, etc.  This is all one guy, but she flits between referring to him as one thing, then another, then a third.  Add to that, the lack of dialogue tags in most of the dialogue.  All of Cromwell’s thoughts and quotes are identified by ‘he said’. If you’re lucky, she throws you a ‘he, Cromwell, said’.  It’s very difficult to tell who is speaking and to whom.  I would have to go back and reread paragraphs to decipher what was going on.  What on earth is wrong with just saying ‘Cromwell said’ or ‘Cromwell thought’.  Or ‘I said’/’I thought’. It’s like she didn’t want to commit to first person or third person, and decided instead to confuse the hell out of everyone.  Just pick!

There are also a lot of characters, and the list in the front does include most of them, but not in a very helpful arrangement. Add to that the fact that it doesn’t list all of their titles, despite the fact that people are often referred to by their titles.  There are six or seven dukes running around the novel, but sometimes speech is identified just by ‘the duke said’.  It was really hard to follow.

So there is no plot and it is hard to read.  There were only two redeeming features of this novel, in my opinion.  One was the complexity of the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with so many complex and varied characters. A particular highlight is the mercurial king and his equally capricious Anne.  Their relationship, their mannerisms, the way they affect everyone around them, it’s all very interesting to read and drawn out realistically.  They were the highlight of the book for me.

The other saving grace of the work was how clear it was that Mantel had done her research. I learned a lot about the period and about London, and the book made the history of the time come alive more completely than any history text I’ve ever read. When you read about these things in history class, it seems so brief, concise, and altered. Binary, really. One minute, they were a Catholic country, and the next minute, they were Protestant. But this book shows just how long, drawn out, and completely hypocritical the whole thing was.  One minute, Sir Thomas More is torturing reformists and people who had the gall to circulate the Bible in English (in England… just let that sink in for a minute, that that was a crime) and by the end of the book, More is being executed for treason/heresy.  There are a lot of executions in the book, and almost all of them are for people following their own beliefs about religion, and not the ones that the government was (that day) shoving down their throats.  All I can say is, in this environment, it’s no wonder the pilgrims were headed to the New World less than 100 years later. Being burned alive for saying the communion wafers/bread is not really the body of Christ is a bit extreme, yes?

So, this book was a disappointment. Add to that, the fact that it was really long (604 pages) and I was glad to be finished with it.  I’m disappointed I didn’t like it more, because I thought perhaps I would read the second one.  I don’t think I have the energy, unfortunately.  If you’re really obsessed with the Tudor era, and have a lot of patience to decipher dialogue with no tags, then you might enjoy this.  But expect it to take a while and feel incomplete at the end.

Also, if you’re curious (as I was), the Thomas Cromwell described in the book is distantly related to the Oliver Cromwell who took over England in the mid-17th century.  Oliver was Thomas’ sister’s grandson.  So he was Oliver’s great-uncle, I think.  It’s kind of amazing to think of a family coming from absolute obscurity (no money or noble pedigree) and having one be chief adviser to the King, and then a relative be ‘Lord Protector’ and de facto dictator of that same country.  And they say there is no upward movement in the British class system.