There are a thousand overtly artistic things to talk about at this summer moment including the new Sidney Nolan exhibition at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. It incorporates his Gallipoli and Iliad visions, the two blending into each other given the adjacent geographies of Gallipoli and Troy. The images are glamour-drenched and illustrational and perhaps don’t heighten our sense of the genius of the man Patrick White, once so fond, described with scorn as Sir Ned Kelly Nolan. But they were snapped up in the 1960s by everyone from the Queen down. Though it is a strange time, this runaway train time, of New Year and the twelve days that follow in the wake of Christmas and culminate in twelfth night, the coming of the Magi, the feast of the Epiphany, those three kings of Orient as they were with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Before Christmas there was the publication of the third and final volume of Cardinal Pell’s 1000 pages of prison journals. They are an extraordinary document and something bigger in their way than art as they depict a formidable man coping with the shadow of injustice.
‘I do not like thee, Dr. Pell / The reason why I cannot tell’ was the adaptation of the famous rhyme some of the liberal Jesuits used to show you surreptitiously decades ago. And a well-known Catholic intellectual of the leftwing variety heard the words whispered by the most literate of Australian Prime Ministers.
Pell was always a tough customer and all the signs are there in the journals, but so is the constant desire to minister to the insulted and the injured, to pray for the guilty and innocent, to rise above self-pity, and try, however stumblingly, to honour the Good.
One incidental offshoot of reading the Cardinal’s prison diaries is to take on board his tip in the trash fiction stakes, a form of reading that comes into its own over the silly season. Pell is especially keen on the Matthew Shardlake detective stories by C J Sansom which feature a hunchbacked lawyer who finds himself in the dark and baleful vicinity of Thomas Cromwell, the destroyer of the monasteries.
Dissolution is Pell’s favourite and it shows Sansom to be a trashmeister of abiding richness and delight, maybe someone to rank with le Carré if you like cloak and dagger mysteries with Tudor swish and style.
Dissolution is Hilary Mantel lite with the crucial difference that the Cromwell depicted here is not the quasi-sympathetic worldling of Wolf Hall but a master schemer of extraordinary brutality, cynicism, and ruthlessness — closer to the figure Leo McKern played in the film of A Man for All Seasons (the wonderful Australian actor looked a bit like the small-eyed, sour-faced character in the Holbein portrait.)
Cromwell has sent one of his emissaries to close down an abbey, but he is murdered. Shardlake is dispatched with an offsider, a sympathetic young man who reveres him. At the abbey, Shardlake encounters various suspects: the man in charge of accounts who stammers except when he is in a rage; a Scottish prior who is extraordinarily cruel to a young novice; the Abbott who purrs with urbanity and likes to ride to hounds with the nobility; and a monk who is a black Spanish moor who dispenses medicine. There’s also a beautiful young girl, full of fire and self-possession, and the memory of the death of another girl who disappeared earlier.
As a whodunit, Dissolution plays fair and defeated the solution guessed by this reader. It also creates a credible simulacrum of a recognizable Tudor world. Ann Boleyn has been executed and the shadow of the accusations against her darken one aspect of the plot.
For all its decor and drama, the reign of Henry VIII was one of the more horrible in English history and Sansom does ample justice to the radical Protestantism, the expediency of Cromwell, and the residual Catholicism of much of the country, not least in the monasteries.
Shardlake is a reformer, Protestant by predisposition, though he’s shaken by the Machiavellianism of the world he confronts. He’s a humane character as well as a humanistic one; he suffers from self-consciousness about his hump and the fact that he thinks women won’t find him attractive. He is a thoughtful, fearless hero, flawed but full of feeling. The dialogue he and the other characters get has a ‘God’s teeth’ aspect but it’s impressive in its relative accuracy –closer to Robert Bolt and Hilary Mantel than to the slapdash rhetoric of a contemporary novel like Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.
There is ample colour and drama in Dissolution and a surprising amount of the climactic action is moving and takes us by surprise. The Shardlake books reflect Eamon Duffy’s highly influential account in The Stripping of the Altars of late Pre-Reformation English Catholicism as supple, civilised and uncorrupt. Sansom, though, has an afterword saying that the revisionism is excessive and that Dom Gregory Knowles, an historian who was a monk said the monasteries could be dodgy.
It’s interesting to compare Sansom with the TV version of Wolf Hall streaming on Stan. Mark Rylance, who can be mannered on stage, is a superbly understated (and likeable) Cromwell. Claire Foy (who plays a later queen in The Crown) is a moody Ann Boleyn, Damien Lewis a blandly loutish Henry and Anton Lesser a sharp-eyed Thomas More who is not quite the saint of collective imagining.
Wolf Hall was made in 2015 (before the concluding volume The Mirror and the Light was published.) It’s remarkable how much it is shorn of the episodic padding –the Carthusian atrocity, the childhood. We are confined to the familiar outline. Jonathan Pryce is an unusual but compelling swerve from type as Cardinal Wolsey.
It does make you wonder what a winding stair and labyrinth of heightened yarn-spinning the Shardlake novels might make as television.
It’s also clear (for what it’s worth) why this fierce, bloodcurdling whodunit would appeal to Pell.
We think of The Duchess of Malfi with its macabrerie and sadism as the quintessential Jacobean play, but Reformation history shows how much torture and treachery had long been the order of the day.
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