Categories
Book Reviews

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

You’d think a biography would pale in comparison to a flesh-and-blood diary with first-hand descriptions of The Great Fire of 1666 and The Great Plague of 1665. Not in this case! Far from being a dry mirror to the diaries, Claire Tomalin’s biography reads almost like a novel, her prose as lively and absorbing as Pepys’ own.

Samuel Pepys is searingly honest and self-aware in his diaries. He impressively avoids the temptation of presenting himself in a favourable light, instead preferring to state events how they happened – even if he ends up coming across badly.

The chapters in this biography are split thematically rather than chronologically, allowing Tomalin to dive deep into Pepys’ mind and experiences without disruption. This structure ensures depth, but doesn’t stop the book from feeling exciting and fast-paced. Tomalin’s analysis seeps into the gaps of Pepys’ diaries and fleshes them out beyond their limited time frame.

Reading this biography was so transporting it often made me feel like a rather voyeuristic fly on Pepys’ wall – although I wasn’t sorry to return to the 21st century after reading of the anaesthetic-less surgery he endured to remove a bladder stone the size of a tennis ball!

I didn’t know much about Pepys before reading this book, and assumed it might be a slow read. Instead, I raced through it like a beach read – it’s utterly gripping and you won’t regret adding it to your bookshelf one bit.

Categories
Book Reviews

The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel

I am deeply obsessed with Tudor history. Historical fiction, non-fiction, art – absolutely anything Tudor-related. I first read Wolf Hall after it won the Booker Prize in 2009. Even at a young age, I was immediately drawn into Hilary Mantel’s skilful portrayal of Cromwell and the Tudor court. I continued to be enthralled by it throughout her followings books, Bring Up the Bodies, and (finally!) The Mirror and the Light.

This series truly has everything. Compelling characters, sharp, witty prose, and a gripping, high-stakes setting. The Tudor period has undeniably been done to death in all forms of historical fiction, but Hilary Mantel breathed new life into it with her unique take on the previously much-maligned Cromwell.

Once I’d managed to extricate myself from the whirlpool of ‘he saids,’ and ascertain that ‘he’ ALWAYS refers to Cromwell, I couldn’t get enough of Hilary Mantel’s sharp, dialogue-dominant prose. She avoids being laden down by old-style phrasing, resulting in a reading experience that is as urgent and exciting as Cromwell’s own life.

Mantel transforms Cromwell from a figure once seen as unglamorously unpleasant to one who is not only human, but dryly humorous and intelligent. This is a huge asset as we navigate the Tudor court through Cromwell’s observant and somewhat sardonic eyes. Like him, we enter it as outsiders, but by the end of the book – like him – it is impossible for us not to have become thoroughly embroiled in it.

Cromwell’s ending may be common knowledge, but Mantel still managed to maintain both her readers’ and the critics’ enthusiasm for his story over a period of 11 years. I actually got chills when I saw the billboard in Leicester Square with the Tudor Rose and the words ‘So now get up.’ I was so excited to get my hands on The Mirror and the Light after 8 years of waiting!

I was lucky enough to see the Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies stage adaptation by the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre in London. It would be wonderful if they released recordings, or even did another for The Mirror and the Light post-pandemic.

The BBC series with Mark Rylance and Claire Foy was also brilliant. To those who haven’t seen it yet, this is a great time to do it – especially if you’re looking for another excellent historical series to binge after Bridgerton or The Crown.

I couldn’t recommend this trilogy enough to those who haven’t yet picked it up, but if the first two books taking the Booker Prize isn’t convincing enough, I’m not sure what is!