Mantel: Wolf Hall

March 16, 2013

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
(Harper Perennial, 2009)
672 p.

When Hilary Mantel’s ambitious historical novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, and then won the National Book Critics Circle Award the same year, I made a note of it; I don’t normally go out of my way to read contemporary fiction, but the Tudor period, and the life of Henry VIII in particular, is of more or less perpetual interest. Then in 2012 Mantel won the Man Booker Prize again, for Bring up the Bodies, the first of two planned sequels to Wolf Hall. I decided I had better take a look.

Wolf Hall charts the course of Thomas Cromwell as he rises from an undistinguished childhood in a working class family to become first the trusted advisor to Cardinal Wolsey and then, after Wolsey’s downfall, to become the king’s chief minister and, excepting the king, arguably the most powerful man in England. It is during this period — the early 1530s — that Henry VIII breaks with the Pope over his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marries Anne Boleyn; Cromwell is the man who greases the wheels. He is portrayed by Mantel as a pure pragmatist, personally loyal to individual persons — he never forgets the kindness shown him by Cardinal Wolsey, for instance — but indifferent to the distinction between temporal and spiritual power, and undettered by any alleged obstacle to the fulfillment of the king’s will.

Mantel does a lot of things right. Her evocation of Tudor England, and especially of the high-stakes political machinations of the royal court and its various outsized personalities, is a pleasure to behold. She goes about it with a sure — as in ‘confident’ — hand. Whether it is faithful or not is something that I cannot judge, but on its own terms it is largely convincing. Her Cromwell is a fine creation, superbly capable and “as cunning as a bag of serpents”, as she has Henry say of him; the part is written with nuance and intelligence.

Her style is interesting but difficult to describe. There is a thorny quality to the prose, an obliquity, with frequent sharp turns and lacunae that require the reader to pay close attention or risk losing the thread. Hers is a literary talent, and it is clear why the book attracted the attention of the awards committees. Moreover, the book is particularly unusual for its distinctive use of the pronoun “he”: it is frequently used in what seems to be an ambiguous manner. Who is “he”? Yet a few cases establish the pattern: in the absence of evidence to the contrary, “he” means Cromwell. More than just a stylistic tick, I believe this actually contributes to the characterization of Cromwell himself, who is somehow immanent in the very grammar of the story and seems almost to be a force of nature.

The central fault of the book — and it is no slight fault in my mind — is its portrayal of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. If the book has villains, is is them. To a certain extent this is natural and even appropriate, for they were the two men who most vigorously opposed the king’s absurd hubris. But her characterization of them — and especially of Thomas More — is mean-spirited and calumnous. She allows More a capacious intelligence and a certain dry wit, but essentially she portrays him as a remorseless kill-joy and sadist. Her treatment of his martyrdom, which is the narrative capstone of the book, is chilly. It is a notably unsympathetic portrait of a great man, and a saint. Naturally, any book that takes Thomas Cromwell as its hero is going to have a topsy-turvy moral perspective, but this mistreatment of More (and, though he is a much more peripheral figure in the story, of Fisher) put quite a strain on my good will. (I can recommend Peter Ackroyd’s fine biography of More, which gives a much more balanced appraisal.) The novel has been lauded in some quarters as a celebration of the triumph of the forces of reform and liberation — represented by Henry and Cromwell — over those of tradition and stagnation — More and Fisher — at the birth of the modern period. In my judgement this reading is too simplistic and does a disservice to the subtlety and craft of the story she tells, but to the extent that it is true, it is all too true.

Finally, a curiosity: “Wolf Hall” is the name of the house of the Seymour family, from which Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, will come. Jane does appear here and there in this book, but, if I remember correctly, no part of Wolf Hall actually takes place at Wolf Hall. Nonetheless, for a book that circles in and around Henry’s court, the title is remarkably apt.

5 Responses to “Mantel: Wolf Hall”

  1. Matthew Says:

    I seem to remember when the second award came out there was a lot of talk about the historical accuracy of both books. I just looked at the Wikipedia entry for Wolf Hall and it references a Wall Street Journal article on the writing of Wolf Hall. Apparently, Mantel spent 5 years doing research to make sure that everybody is in the right place and says that right historically recorded thing at the right time. Everything else she makes up, but does it masterfully.

    The book is decidedly pro reform, so if she interprets More’s historic actions in an unflattering light, it is surely to be expected, just as Ackroyd’s account would be more sympathetic, which in your also sympathetic view becomes “balanced”. Certainly, Mantel’s portrayal of More plays on the prima facia belief that someone so doctrinally inflexible in his public life is unlikely to be the life of the party in his private life. Could you imagine the new Pope Emeritus kicking back at Castle Gandolfo with a nice German beer watching soccer? Neither can I. Nor can I imagine More, however much a saint for his defence of the church, as a devoted family man or someone who would treat with perceived enemies. In any case, whatever motives are ascribed, balanced or not, Wolf Hall is at the very least faithful to the public record of the time.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Matthew. Somehow I missed your comment when you first posted it.

    I don’t doubt that she did a lot of research for the book; as I said above, she does a terrific job conjuring up the time and place, and I appreciate her effort to be faithful to the public historical record. Even her language, while not trying to actually emulate the language of the time, nonetheless does lean in that direction; it is at least not straightforwardly the language of our time. I gather that you’ve read the book? If so, I hope you understand what I mean.

    My knowledge of More is based principally on Ackroyd’s biography, which may be particularly sympathetic — though I know of no specific reason to think it is (unless it is the mere fact that More was English, and Ackroyd is an anglophile). Personally I don’t see any reason to suppose that doctrinal inflexibility (or what I would call “faithfulness”) goes hand-in-hand with a dour or curmudgeonly demeanor. There’s this, for instance:

    I am looking forward to reading Bring Up the Bodies.

  3. Christopher Hitchens reviewed this in The Atlantic when it came out, a predictably nasty (toward the Church) exercise which made the book appear of similar mind, so I didn’t really consider reading it. Hitchens was then replied to by the blogger who calls herself Alias Clio. I just looked for that review and couldn’t find it, and was beginning to wonder if I was imagining it. Then, when I searched for it, Google turned up my own remarks about both of them. The link to A Clio no longer works, so I guess she decided to remove the post. The blog is inactive at the moment.

  4. cburrell Says:

    It’s funny: I don’t remember that post on your blog at all, though I must have read it at the time. In any case, I’ll take a look at the essay by Hitchens. Thanks.

  5. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t remember having read it, less so that I didn’t remember having written it. At least I did recognize it when I read it.

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