Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Lion in springtime: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

Midway through Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s mammoth novelistic account of political intrigue and diplomacy in early 16th century England, there is a description of the making of spiced wafers. “The process involves a good eye, exact timing and a steady hand. There are so many points at which it can go wrong. The mixture must have the right dropping consistency, the plates of the long-handled irons must be well-greased and hot... If you miss a beat the smell of scorching permeates the air. A second divides the successes from the failures.”

This passage could just as easily be about the acuity required to survive (even if for a short while) in the boiling plate that is the court of Henry VIII, one of England’s most mercurial rulers. This is a place where people routinely go from being in enviable positions to finding their heads on the chopping block, and Mantel’s book takes us straight to the heart of a storm: the king’s desire to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry the young Anne Boleyn instead, a decision that will have strong reverberations since it will lead directly to the English Reformation (the separation of the English Church from the papacy of Rome, which refused to grant Henry his annulment). Historical figures such as Cardinal Wolsey (at his peak one of the most powerful men in Britain, but also the biggest casualty of the Anne Boleyn affair), his successor as Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, and the 3rd Duke of Norfolk stride through these pages, but the central character in Mantel’s retelling is Thomas Cromwell, who rose from being a blacksmith’s son to becoming Henry’s chief minister and one of the engineers of the Reformation.

When we learn about history primarily through cold details set out “objectively” in textbooks, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that the distant events we take for granted – events that now appear set in stone, almost as if they could have unfolded in no other way – were the accumulated products of the personalities, life experiences and whimsies of human beings who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time: real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas, biases and prejudices of their own. One of the things Mantel does wonderfully well in this book is to show how Cromwell’s life and character – in conjunction with those of the others around him – came to have a bearing on the vital events of his time.

From the beginning, Cromwell is an outsider: at age 15 he left his country to escape his violent father, and spent his youth in France and Italy (even serving in the French army for a while, something that is never forgotten even when he is most in favour). Shortly after the present-day of the novel begins, his patron Wolsey falls out of favour and then he loses his wife and daughters to the plague. Mantel’s restrained writing doesn’t stress his grief, but we sense the turmoil underneath – as we do when he enters a relationship with his late wife’s sister, a relationship which raises questions of morality that also surround the king’s liaisons with the Boleyn sisters Anne and Mary.

Cromwell’s circumstances and his detachment from the country of his birth seem to give him a certain elasticity in thought, which in turn aids his rise to power. In a telling passage, he reflects on the differences between himself and the inflexible Thomas More:
What’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away...with every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says in the Bible, ‘Purgatory’. Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says ‘Pope’.
This ability to question in general – and the ability to question the authority of Rome in particular – will be vital to Cromwell’s career trajectory. But the above passage is also a reminder of how “perspective tellings” can bring nuance to historical events. Mantel’s portrayal of the antagonism between Cromwell and More is significantly different from that in Robert Bolt’s famous play A Man for All Seasons, which had More as the tragic, upright hero and Cromwell as his cunning nemesis. (Note: I haven't read the play but I've seen the very faithful movie version.) Which of these portrayals is truer to the real thing? Even if we had access to a time machine, we probably wouldn’t get a satisfactory answer to that question. More to the point, it may not be very important.

Of course, history can turn not just on clashes of ideology and character but on bedroom shenanigans as well – on a king’s hunger for a woman who is withholding herself from him. The Tudors were a horny lot and there is a lot of casual bawdiness in this book. People gossip about whether Anne Boleyn is a virgin and how far she has let the king go. (“She is selling herself by the inch,” says one, “She wants a present in cash for every advance above her knee...Anne has very long legs. By the time he comes to her secret part [the king] will be bankrupt.”) There is discussion of maidenheads, of who has done it with whom, and of the promiscuity of the French. A committee of elderly men is required to think up ways in which the marriage between Henry and Katherine might have been only “partly consummated”, so as not to make a liar of either party. Reading some of this made me think that perhaps the film The Private Life of Henry VIII was not as broadly caricatured as its reputation suggests.

Mantel mostly uses formal contemporary language (her epitaph “To my singular friend Mary Robertson this be given” is more old-world than almost anything in the actual text) and she locates humour in unexpected places, as in the passage where the unhappy, exiled Wolsey is met by a messenger bearing words of solace from the king. Weeping in gratitude for this unexpected – and ultimately hollow – act of kindness, Wolsey realises he has no gift he can send back for Henry. “He looks around him, as if his eye might light on something he can send; a tree?” (When he eventually does settle on a gift, it’s a laugh-out-loud moment.) This richly tragi-comic passage also includes a very modern-sounding remark about the manufacturing of reliquaries that are passed off as pieces of the True Cross.

Stylistically, a minor irritant is Mantel’s use of the pronoun “he” for Cromwell as if it were a synonym for his name, even in passages where two or more male figures are present and where it isn’t self-evident who the “he” refers to. In principle this is a good way of keeping the reader tied to Cromwell’s consciousness (the book never leaves him), but the device hinders lucidity in places, so that you have to reread a paragraph (and perhaps the one before it too) to make sure you’ve correctly understood a conversation or sequence of events. As if it weren’t hard enough on the reader that so many of the men in this story are named Thomas and so many of the women, Mary!

Wolf Hall presupposes a reader’s familiarity with the basic facts of Henry VIII’s reign; given its vast canvas of characters and complicated interrelationships, it helps to have more than a passing knowledge of the period (I had to consult a couple of encyclopaedia entries early on). It’s useful, for instance, to know that one of the book's peripheral characters – the young lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour – will eventually become another of Henry’s brides and that her destiny will be closely tied to Cromwell’s (this isn’t covered in the novel’s time-span, but the ending points towards it); that Anne Boleyn’s baby daughter – a source of disappointment to a court desperately awaiting a male heir – will become Elizabeth I; and that Cromwell himself, though he ends this book at the height of his powers, will eventually meet with the same fate as Thomas More did. This may be a 650-page book, but it’s always aware that it covers only a tiny sliver of a fascinating period. This makes the abrupt ending - with Cromwell left suspended in time, seemingly on the brink of even more compelling events - all the more apt.


  1. I absolutely love Tudor history. And plan to buy this book. But does Mantel actually reveal anything new? There have been so many books on the Tudors; is this better than the others?

  2. There have been so many books on the Tudors; is this better than the others?

    Kavitha: I haven't read too much about the Tudors (and nothing novelistic before this) so I'm not qualified to answer that question. But I would think the freshness of this version hinges on its making Cromwell the protagonist and using his character as the key to many important events - thus providing a different perspective on a familiar story.

  3. Reading 'The Little Stranger' by Sarah Waters and enjoying it thoroughly. When are you reviewing it?

  4. Sambit: not reviewing it unless someone asks me to. Would like to read it, time permitting.

  5. Any thoughts on why the title is 'Wolf Hall'? I enjoyed the book but didnt quite understand that. Unless it was just that,that was where the king and Cromwell were both headed since it was Jane Seymour's home.

  6. I remembered reading this review when you posted, and finally picked up the book last month. I loved it, loved how Thomas Cromwell was portrayed as the rational opportunist among all the casual ones.