(Harper Perennial, 2009)
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.