Tales of Matthew Shardlake, C. J. Sansom and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
—by Renee Kimball BOOK HANGOVER
Book hang-o-ver (hang-oh-ver) noun 1. The inability to start a new book because you are still living in the old book’s world 2. The inability to function at work/school because you were up all-night binge-reading —The Urban Dictionary
Is a Book Hangover a real condition? The answer: a resounding “YES!”
Avid readers frequently suffer a feeling of despondency after the ending of a riveting novel, and often refer to that despondency as a “book hangover” (Urban Dictionary). Similar to a hangover from alcoholic overindulgence, a book hangover can be just as painful, and last a lot longer.
What causes a reader to yearn to remain in the literary world of certain books, and what causes that thorny depression following the ending of an engaging novel?
Clare Barnett writing for Book Riot in 2020, found some answers to those questions in reading research focused on the “effects of reading on theory of mind and empathy,” conducted by Maja Djikic, PhD, Associate Professor and the Director of Self-Development Laboratory at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, (Barnett).
According to Barnett’s article while citing Djikic’s research, the despondent feelings felt at the end of an engaging novel might be a kind of “simple sadness” (Barnett). Sadness that the novel has ended, and the beloved characters and the world they inhabit are gone. Yet, the interior self won’t let go, and the reader enters into a type of mourning where ‘inside one’s psyche, . . .the reader wishes for more time to reflect and unravel whatever complexities still plague them.” (Barnett, Djikic).
For some readers, the loss is magnified, it blooms and stays. Djikic contends this might flow from two other sources, “emotional transportation and empathy.” (Barnett).
“Emotional transportation” is the reason most avid readers read. That wonderful feeling of getting “lost in a book,’ the one read through the night. The reader becomes unaware of the world around them, a feeling of lost time, all while the characters envisioned in their head are so present that they feel they are in the room (Barnett).
According to Djikic, “in reading psychology, the experience of losing reality is called “emotional transportation” (Barnett). Most obsessive readers readily relate to the concept of “emotional transportation”—that is the reason they read, to be transported away to another realm, another reality, the reality within the story.
The second source, “Empathy,” allows the book characters to feel like “. . .close friends because your brain processes feelings for them in much the same way as it does for real-life connections” (Djikic). Reading research found that “reading fiction activates empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”—a very good thing (Barnett) (emphasis added).
How intense and how long a book hangover lasts depends upon a variety of internal causes. Djikic believes that if the hangover is short, then possibly it is merely a simple sadness that comes at the end of an engaging story. While book hangovers lasting longer, several weeks or more, could result from an inner need to rationalize and understand the actions and story line that struck a chord within the reader’s psyche. The story has brought to surface personal unresolved issues needing examination. Djikic offers that even this can be a positive experience that results in self-improvement, increased empathy, and promotes a deeper self-analysis establishing positive behaviors and awareness (Barnett).
Having a book hangover is uncomfortable, but it can also be an impetus towards a broader view, a need for more, a push towards research and more reading. A suggestion or need to delve deeper within one’s self. It is an evolutionary process: you start at point A and follow the “yellow brick road” to other universes–you become immersed and words, characters, and worlds become alive.
“When a ‘hangover’ evolves into a more continued emotion of discomfort – that usually comes from still pondering and struggling with some personally relevant issues that were brought up in the book – it could lead to a personal transformation. Fiction reading can be a powerful dysregulator of identity, allowing readers to ‘exit’ themselves, and be in a state that is more receptive to personal change or transformation.” (Barnett- Djikic)
My Hangover. . .
Historical fiction is not for everyone but by chance, I was led to C.J. Sansom’s Tudor England and the inimitable Matthew Shardlake. Sansom has written a masterpiece of history and suspense, and it is a masterpiece, stretching through seven books and over 4100 pages – The Matthew Shardlake Series.
Shardlake is the character who held me through the series that resulted in a terrible book hangover. I only felt that lost after reading King’s Talisman in the ‘80s, and I was moved to tears when Wolf died. If you have read it, you will relate. I was bereft and miserable then, and felt the same after the last Shardlake novel. Mourning Shardlake, feeling empty and wanting more, led me to Hilary Mantel’s expansive Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the Mirror and the Light—I am still reading.
What exactly is so riveting about Shardlake? Shardlake is no Columbo, he isn’t Jack Reacher or James Bond, maybe a bit of Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, and a Tudor MacGyver, generously spiced with Umberto Eco’s formulae found in The Name of the Rose. Mostly, he is likeable and relatable.
In Sansom’s novels, Shardlake is forever deftly stepping into and away from threats-and his own imminent demise by means unfair and foul. While Shardlake tries his best to avoid Court intrigue, the Court and its powerful inhabitants find him, drag him back to face danger through seven volumes. Lawyer Shardlake is nobody’s fool. He always gets his man.
Reading Sansom, I am transported to Tudor England, I am there. Matthew Shardlake is all too human, questioning, doubtful, the favorite relative, cousin, uncle, that you remember with deep affection, who plods, pokes, and unearths the unimaginable.
Shardlake’s home is located in Chancery, London. A simple man from all appearances, Matthew is a brilliant tactician, astute, aware, and sadly, physically disfigured, he is a hunchback. He knows what it is to be made fun of, shoved aside, set apart, and to face scorching loneliness. Yet, despite his deformity, he cares for others, even those who treat him with aversion. He is generous to the poor and disadvantaged, he is kind to people of every station and kind to animals, he is empathetic and a gentle soul. Shardlake believes in courtly love, but he loves from afar –his love remains unrequited, he does not get his girl.
An honest lawyer, Sergeant Shardlake, is employed by Lord Cromwell to ferret out the evil doer, the thief, the immoral noble. Matthew’s successes cause him to become a much sought-after sleuth – he is tenacious in his dealings. In the first novel Dissolution, during the year 1537, a royal commissioner has been murdered at the Monastery of St. Donatus the Ascendant, Scarnsea, Sussex. Lord Cromwell directs Shardlake to leave London and investigate the murder. And so, with Dissolution, the first of the seven Shardlake books begins.
Book two, Dark Fire, takes place three years later in 1540. Again, Lord Cromwell demands Matthew leave the security of his private law practice and enter the fray of court politics. In Dark Fire, Shardlake must find an ancient missing formula for a fiery combustible liquid and the weapon crafted to handle and disburse the highly volatile liquid. The formula was created during the Byzantine era and lost for centuries, now, the liquid is in London and Cromwell must have it for the King. Murder, madness, and greed propel the plot forward, while Lord Cromwell loses favor and is eventually beheaded. Will Matthew now be able to live in peace or will his reputation draw him back? Book 3 through 7 along with more plots and near misses follow.
The setting for the Shardlake series is a time of high intrigue: Tudor England under Henry VIII, the dissolution of the Catholic Church, the unending wars between England and France, and of course, Henry VIII’s love life and merry-go-round of divorce, beheadings, courtships, children begot and dreamed of, and the wives! Henry the VIII’s court was stormy, unstable, and full of trickery– what a cast of characters!
The last novel, Tombland, ends with an aging Matthew, now in his early sixties, holding a baby girl that he was in the process of adopting. The baby, who he had pulled out of the arms of her murdered parents and had refused to leave behind at the end of an especially long and bloody battle, is now safe in his London home. We leave Matthew looking out the window of his study in London late at night, baby in arms. Despite the war-torn setting of this last novel, the tale seems to end with a new beginning and much hope for the future–hope from his readers too, that C.J. Sansom will bring Matthew Shardlake back, and soon.
While mourning Shardlake and hoping Sansom will continue his legacy, I turned to other historical fiction authors in an attempt to remove my lingering book hangover.
My search found Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy of Thomas Cromwell’s ascendency and fall—it is another historical fiction masterpiece. Wolf Hall, the first book of the trilogy, introduces Cromwell while he was in the service of Cardinal Woolsey.
Cromwell, fiercely loyal to Woolsey must remove him from service to the King because Woolsey has failed to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and a dispensation from the Catholic Church. Henry’s push to divorce Catherine—his wife of twenty-five years — and his desire to marry Anne Boleyn destroyed Woolsey’s standing with the King. The Pope refuses to acknowledge the dissolution of Henry’s marriage nor will he grant dispensation, Woolsey becomes a scapegoat, is forced out, and eventually dies, alone and disgraced.
After Woolsey’s fall and death, Cromwell rises in the Court hierarchy. Cromwell’s rapid ascendency towards the King’s most trusted advisor and the accumulation of his immense administrative power are exhaustively researched in both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Bring Up the Bodies, ends with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, her reign a short one. The third and last book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, begins where Bring Up the Bodies ended, a court without Boleyn and the King’s marriage to Jane Seymour.
Mantel’s writing is soothing, intricately woven, and psychologically deep. Mantel removes the secrecy surrounding the interior workings of the Court, the machinations of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and the multi-faceted psychology of Thomas Cromwell, a brilliant, driven man. Under Mantel, Cromwell becomes flesh, at times cruel, lonely, self-directed and self-controlled, but more than that, kind, concerned, aware of those outside Court, and loving to those who mean the most to him.
Like Mantel’s, C.J. Sansom’s writing is England’s historical voice. With Sansom, the reader is steeped in the sights, smells, and violence of Tudor England. His detail of the pageantry, clothing, colors, smells, and food are highly sensory – you see and taste and smell everything. Sansom realistically portrays the struggles of the everyday man, his despondency, his urges, his needs, his losses, the daily struggle to merely survive under Tudor reign. Stunning with brutal descriptions of war, blood and loss, as well as the intrigues of the court are bold and shockingly real, Sansom is a word master, it is “emotional transportation” at its finest.
So, while I will continue to hope for Shardlake’s return, I will read Mantel to the end. The plan going forward will be to complete one of many biographies of Thomas Cromwell. After all, Cromwell was a prime mover and shaker at the center of Henry the VIII’s Court, although sadly and eventually, its victim.
Maybe, just maybe, that book hangover will gradually disappear.
References C.J. Sansom, The Matthew Shardlake Mystery Series. Books 1-6 and Book 7: Tombland Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror & the Light Clare Barnett. “The Psychology of a Book Hangover.” Book Riot. Jun 9, 2020 https://bookriot.com/psychology-of-a-book-hangover/ Malcolm Gaskill. Man Is Wolf to Man. The London Review of Books. Vol. 42 No. 2 · 23 January 2020.
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading, writing, and animal advocacy. She fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.