15 Mar House arrest
I was going to buy Hilary Mantel’s long-awaited final instalment of the Thomas Cromwell story anyway. By ‘anyway’, I mean before the world changed and the urge to buy a hefty, 850-page tome became compelling and, possibly, wise. The time for reading in the weeks (maybe months) ahead just got extended due to my self-imposed quasi house arrest for the foreseeable. They call it social distancing now, suddenly a new term that will make it to the OED later in the year, no doubt, as it’s now ‘a thing’ as opposed to an apparently contradictory coupling of two words that don’t normally belong together. If I were actually ill, it would be self-isolating. But I’m not. Just being careful.
So, yes, plenty of time for reading and The Mirror and the Light should see me through a week or two depending on how many other things I manage to build into suddenly unstructured weeks and when I get my capacity for concentration back to its normal level. That’s taken a bit of a dive recently and I’ve found myself up to all sorts of diversionary activities. Pottering really. Timescales all out of kilter. Difficult to focus. Made soup. Baked a lot of bread.
It’s been some time since I read the first two volumes of Thomas’s story. Eleven years since the first; eight since the second. A long wait during which I’ve forgotten quite a lot – though not the pleasure of the two books and the sense I was watching from the side of the banqueting hall or the front of the public gallery, from behind a curtain or the corner of a room at the Cromwell house. So, I decided to start again at the beginning and warm up to the latest book by re-reading the other two.
Half way through Wolf Hall (first volume) and I am struck by a couple of ironies. The first is that each year, come the spring and summer, the Cromwell family who lived in Putney, about 5 miles east along the Thames from where I live, like all of London faced a seasonal illness. A ‘flu, a sort of plague that made people very ill, had them isolating themselves, boarding up the windows, fleeing to the country if they were sufficiently well-heeled to have a rural retreat.
The second irony is that so many of the women in the book are, in effect, confined to quarters. It’s not exactly a cross-section of society as most of the characters are in and around Cromwell’s household and Henry VIII’s court, but be they a queen out of favour, a queen in waiting, ladies of the chamber or the daughters of court hangers-on, lower-ranking aristocrats or tradesmen, women were closeted (and corseted) away. Behind closed doors, constrained from moving around, stuck with their needlework or prayer book or some idle chatter and intrigue, tuned into rumour. To mirror them, I have my knitting, my books, some occasional idle chatter (but, thus far, no intrigue) over WhatsApp, email or phone calls, and constant news, some of it fake. I feel as if I’m reaching back over the centuries and spending time in the company of those women under house arrest, with disease lurking at their doorstep. At least I don’t have the corsets!