New word of the week, found in an old book: illuded. I was tired of staring at screens, and I was looking for physical books, the paper and ink kind, to read. The local library’s closed temporarily due to an outbreak of Covid, so I raided a to-be-read stash at the back of my closet: a box of books from my teen years, forwarded by my father a few months back.
I chose Henry the Eighth by Francis Hackett. Henry glared, beady-eyed, from the cover. I immediately thought of Krispy Kreme donuts. Not because Henry’s face was fat, though it was, but because good behavior at church on Sunday morning and evening was rewarded by Krispy Kreme donuts and Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday night. Masterpiece Theatre was where I got my first doses of British costume drama and Tudors, in series like Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry XIII. I remembered intrigue, wood paneling and long corridors, oddly shaped headgear, ladies poking needles into embroidery hoops, men with bobs.
Hackett’s book, organized by royal wife, had 448 pages of dense, small type. As of this writing, I’ve made it a couple of subsections into Anne Boleyn (the first two wives take up nearly two-thirds of the book). I believe I read this book at around age 15, but I have no memory of the contents. Over the years I’ve read and watched lots of stuff on the Tudors, the Wolf Hall books and miniseries, various pop histories, Shakespeare of course. The era still fascinates. The Hackett, a Bantam paperback, was showing its years. No matter how gently I handled it, the brown-edged pages keep detaching themselves from the binding.
The style took some getting used to. Hackett writes from a “psycho-historian” perspective, in which he freely inserts himself into the minds of the main characters. Also he makes some rather breath-taking generalizations on the French, the Italians, the Spanish, various churches and churchmen… I yipped out loud several times in the first few pages. Obscure words abounded. I found “illuded” in a paragraph about Cardinal Wolsey, one of Henry VII’s closest advisors. Wolsey was a self-made, ambitious man who fatally overestimated his ability to manage his king. Hackett assesses him as “completely illuded by the wealth of [the Tudors] and the grandeur of [the Medicean papacy].” ??? Context was not helpful, so I went to the dictionary. That’s a practice I recommend, but it almost feels like cheating. I prefer to look up a word to prove I was right about my guess as to its meaning to looking it up without guessing. “Illuded” turns out to mean fooled by, tricked, or deceived. Related to illusion, which makes sense.
I wasn’t quite sure that I’d understood Hackett’s intent. At times he writes like somebody two drinks into a three word-martini lunch. In describing a revolt of London apprentices:
Theirs was a London of a thousand trades, a London of goldsmiths, silversmiths, armorers, blacksmiths, pewterers; of girdlers, loriners, saddlers and cutlers; tylers and plumbers and masons and plasterers and glaziers and painters; of fell-mongers, curriers, leather sellers, skinners, salters; of pinners on London Bridge, of wire workers and spurriers; fletchers and bowyers and stringers for warfare; joiners, cordwainers, printers; of tapsters and brewers and ale tasters…
That’s 67 words, and the sentence continues for another 42. “Loriners” is unfamiliar, but from context I think it’s something horsey. The dictionary confirms. The sentence is exhausting and exhilarating, but also it’s as broad and bustling as sixteenth century London. Hackett also makes some lovely short sentences. Anne Bolyen’s section opens with “The executioner’s ax is an unsocial tool.” !!!!
Henry the Eighth was published in 1929, and I imagine its vocabulary and style would have been considered a bit astounding even then. Hackett, an Irish writer who had emigrated to the United States, was well into a long career as a novelist and critic. He emigrated to America, starting out in New York but soon moving to Chicago. In that city, he worked as the literary editor for the Chicago Evening Post. He also lived for a while at Hull House, an institution founded by Jane Addams and designed to help immigrants adjust to the US. Hackett taught English to Russian immigrants at Hull House, which was on South Halsted Street. (I yipped again, since I lived for four years in an apartment on North Halsted Street. Same street!)
I still enjoy learning about the Tudors. Despite their undeniable successes at the international level, their willingness to set heads a-rolling makes them monsters to me, Henry maybe the worst, and monsters make for interesting narratives. Reading this biography in 2021, I’m struck by parallels with a current political figure: both insecure second sons who assume the family business and squander their father’s fortune, both becoming cruel, glittering gluttons, both risky to know. I’m curious to see how the story ends.