At last, I have finished Hilary Mantel’s Man-Booker winner this morning! For readers of Philippa Gregory and other historical romances, Wolf Hall might seem like it can offer no new thrills. The turbulence of sixteenth century England is old news thanks to the current mania for Tudors. The cast of characters we meet is familiar: dangerously intemperate Henry VIII; the woefully deposed Queen Katherine of Aragon; her successor, the cat-like Anne Boleyn; the doomed churchmen Wolsey and More (and Cranmer and Latimer)…
But there is a new star on the horizon and Mantel gives him a meaty role. When I saw the novel was Tudorian in theme and I had heard it was about a Thomas, I thought it was Thomas More, Catholic saint and writer of Utopia (as in “The Prince has read Utopia”). Wendy, the events manager at the bookstore scoffed, “It’s Thomas Cromwell!”
“Don’t you mean Thomas More?” I frowned. “Cromwell’s first name was Oliver. And he wasn’t alive yet.”
“No, the King killed Thomas More.”
“I think that was Thomas Becket, who wrote the Imitation of Christ. And Henry II killed him not Henry VIII.”
With the trusty aid of Wikipedia search we corrected our (my) abominable English history. Henry II killed Thomas Becket. Thomas a Kempis wrote the Imitation of Christ. Thomas More was executed under Henry’s reign. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s minister, was also executed – but that’s getting ahead of our story. Wolsey’s first name is Thomas. Anne Boleyn’s father’s name is Thomas. “Half the world is called Thomas,” Cromwell thinks acidly.
Our man Thomas Cromwell is self-made: a man born in the gutter and abused by a cruel father. He escapes to Europe, fights in a few wars, and returns to serve Cardinal Wolsey – one of the most powerful men at the time - as secretary and continues to rise. He is a true Renaissance man:
“He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that’s ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse wit you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate.”He speaks a dozen languages, and has the entire New Testament by heart. Despite his low birth, Cromwell breaks through the strict social strata that govern Tudorian England and gains access to the ear of the monarch.
He is a complex character: a man who is kind to his family and fair to his household and those under his protection. He is a “charmer and a bully”; he will do you a favor if you do him one. His duality is what makes him such an excellent character. The novel ends with More’s death, before we realize that Cromwell, too, is headed for the executioner’s. (How could we believe it? He has become one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.)
Mantel writes with a collage of details – the smell of lemons, or sizzling flesh, the pine of Christmas boughs, the scratch of a pen. The setting’s authenticity spreads; it is anchored in flesh and is weighted by objects: books, roasted pigs, robes. Her world is believable, her dialogue intelligent and acerbic, and though we know what will happen, Cromwell does not and we, following him, forget that we have the advantage of hindsight.
She contrasts the large events – the religious and political battles, the constant flux of fortunes – with the miniature:
“The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”
Wolf Hall is a novel about power: the struggle to attain it and the subsequent struggle to keep it, the dog-eat-dog nature of living at court, of staying on the right side of a changeable king. It emphasizes the power of words and of incantations, of admissions, of recanting. Saying that the host is just bread earns a beating, reading the Bible in one’s own tongue invites the charge of heresy or treason and a painful death.
I'm not sure whether Wolf Hall deserved to beat A.S. Byatt's Children's Book, but the two provide lush examples of how the historical novel can still succeed. I’ve heard Hilary Mantel is working on a sequel to Wolf Hall and I eagerly await it.