Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I read Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Booker winning Wolf Hall a year ago, but though I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to write a review that does it justice. So, I’ll just write the best one I can with the proviso that it won’t come close to being deserving of this wonderful book, which is the best book of the decade for me.

Prior to reading Wolf Hall, I pretty much steered clear of historical fiction despite the fact that I do like history. Far too many books of historical fiction were made up of fluffy bed-hopping, heaving bosoms, and girlish giggles. What serious reader wants that, even in a light read? I sure don’t.

But Wolf Hall was written by Hilary Mantel, I told myself. Hilary Mantel doesn’t write fluff. Hilary Mantel is an accomplished, versatile writer. She’s bound to give us something stellar. So, I bought Wolf Hall and dived in. Not only was I not disappointed, the book exceeded all my high expectations by leaps and bounds. Yes, it’s concerned with Henry’s desire to divorce and remarry in order to obtain a male heir, but it’s far more concerned with power and how one gains, uses, and loses that power than it is with bed-hopping and heaving bosoms. Thank goodness.

Wolf Hall, for those who don’t know, is set in 16th century Tudor England at the court of King Henry VIII at the moment when Henry has made up his mind to rid himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, hoping the latter will provide him with the male heir the first failed to deliver. Although we’re surrounded by Henry, Anne, Anne’s sister, Mary, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and even Jane Seymour, it’s Thomas Cromwell who takes center stage.

We first meet Cromwell as a young boy, lying bruised and bleeding on the cobblestones, the result of a severe beating from his father, the drunken Putney blacksmith, Walter Cromwell. Having had enough, Thomas runs away.

The next time we meet him, much has happened and life has definitely changed. Thomas Cromwell is now a very cosmopolitan lawyer in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry’s chief advisor. Mantel doesn’t tell us much about the years in between Cromwell’s last beating as a lad and his rise to power, but we do know he spent time as a mercenary in France, studied with Florentine bankers, Dutch clothiers, memorized the Bible, learned to speak half a dozen languages, and became a lawyer. All that is quite an accomplishment for a boy who doesn’t even know his own birthday, other than it was sometime in 1485.

But perhaps Thomas Cromwell’s greatest ability is his ability to make even kings laugh. Mantel writes:

With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can outtalk him, if he wants to talk.

The ability to make even kings laugh serves Cromwell quite well in Henry’s court, for as most know, Cardinal Wolsey, whom we first encounter at the peak of his powers as an arrogant, preening, peacock of a man, chose his side very badly when he failed to take Anne Boleyn as a serious contender for Catherine’s place at Henry’s side.

And when Wolsey goes down, it’s Cromwell who rises even higher.

If you’ve ever seen Robert Bolt’s marvelous play, A Man for All Seasons, you’ll know how Thomas Cromwell is usually portrayed – as a bully and as a harsh master, one who brooks no dissension from anyone. But Hilary Mantel, I think, with Wolf Hall, has changed the way the world will forever view Thomas Cromwell.

In her book, Cromwell is both humane and generous. He genuinely loves his wife, Liz, and their children. He loves his home at Austin Friars, a home teeming with in-laws and wards and nieces and nephews and abandoned wives. At Austin Friars, children are never spanked nor are servants ever whipped. However, while brokering "deals" for Henry, Cromwell is shrewd enough to set his sites on the far flung future, on a new England in which kindness, tolerance, and education take primary importance, and Cromwell has decided that he, himself, will be the author of this “thoroughly modern England.”

Even Thomas More admires Cromwell, and Cromwell is humble enough to be flattered by More’s words:

...lock Thomas Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money....

And here lies the crux of the problem for some readers. Those readers who come to Wolf Hall with a profound love and reverence for Thomas More will probably find Mantel’s portrayal of “the man for all seasons” undeservedly harsh, the way others have found Bolt’s portrayal of Cromwell.

Mantel’s More is a man who is both petty and mean in spirit, word, and deed. He not only tortures those beneath him, he gloats about doing so and seemingly, he enjoys doing it. While Austin Friars is bursting at the seams with love and good humor, More’s home at Chelsea is a place where the saint insists on being loved and indulged, while the women, including his own wife, Alice, are snubbed and taunted. When Cromwell dines with More in Chelsea, the dinner conversation is in Latin, a language Alice does not understand, and More wastes no time in taking this opportunity to make fun of her as the following passage shows:

“Eat, eat,” says More. “All except Alice, who will burst out of her corset.”

At her name she turns her head. “That expression of painful surprise is not native to her,” More says. “It is produced by scraping back her hair and driving in great ivory pins, to the peril of her skull. She believes her forehead is too low. It is, of course. Alice, Alice,” he says, “remind me why I married you.”

“To keep house, Father,” Meg says in a low voice.

“Yes, yes,” More says. “A glance at Alice frees me from stain of concupiscence.”

In truth, of course, Cromwell was probably not as bad as Bolt portrayed him nor as good as Mantel does. Conversely, More was probably not the saint Bolt would have us believe he was, but he was probably not as cruel and petty as Mantel paints him. Historical truth usually lies somewhere near the middle, and there’s no reason to think it’s any different in the case of Cromwell and More, though readers who revere More should be aware of Mantel’s treatment of him going in. Personally, I wasn’t bothered by it. Mantel brings Cromwell to life so convincingly that my sympathies, while reading Wolf Hall, at least, couldn’t lie anywhere but with the book’s hero. In fact, for me, part of the magic of Wolf Hall lies in Mantel’s extraordinary ability to transform a man, described by Swineburne as “shapeless, spiritless, bodiless, soulless, senseless, helpless, worthless rubbish” into a humane, forward thinking, and supremely modern man. In fact, Mantel’s Cromwell often takes on nearly Shakespearian proportions in both his self-awareness and his self-doubt.

But have no doubt, Thomas Cromwell, even in Hilary Mantel’s sympathetic hands, does have an agenda all his own. He knows, perhaps better than anyone else, that Henry would happily remain a Catholic ‘till death if only the Church would annul his marriage to Catherine and permit him to marry Anne Boleyn. It’s only Pope Clement’s determination not to let that happen that fuels Henry’s fight with his faith. And Cromwell is banking on Clement remaining true to his convictions, for it is only through the Reformation, and Henry’s desire for Anne, that Cromwell can gain the ground he desires and get even richer in the doing.

The bulk of Wolf Hall takes place during the years between 1525 to 1533. Though this is only eight years, the novel is bursting at the seams with characters. Mantel does provide a family tree and a cast of characters (five pages long) in the front of the book, but non-Anglophiles may still have a problem keeping everything in the book straight, though this will be their fault, not Mantel’s. Many of the characters are named “Thomas,” and Mantel, who wants to keep her reader in the mind of her narrator, often uses “he,” “him,” or “his” rather than a proper name. I know some readers who found this confusing. I never did, and it didn’t bother me one bit, though of course, you may be different.

Also, unlike most historical novels, Wolf Hall is written in the present tense. I thoroughly enjoyed this choice and found myself figuratively thrust right into the thick of things at Henry’s court – and in Cromwell’s thought processes. The present tense, of course, implies no knowledge on Mantel’s part of the events that will occur in the future. Thus, Mantel is free to speculate on what these events might entail. I thought this was a brilliant choice. It caused even the book’s minor characters – Elizabeth, Mary and Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s extended family – to come vibrantly alive.

Characterization is something at which Mantel has always excelled. We get to know Thomas Cromwell, not only from his own point of view, but from the point of view of many other of the book’s characters. We see the gentler side of him at home, we see him bantering with ambassadors, we see him worrying about his wife and daughters. We even see him making a pet out of a rough-coated cat with golden eyes.

Anne Boleyn, who Mantel describes as “a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes” is another character rendered in excruciating detail, none of it very flattering. With the king’s friends, Cromwell notes that:

Anne is brittle in their company, and as ruthless with their compliments as a housewife snapping the necks of larks for the table. If her precise smile fades for a moment, they all lean forward, anxious to know how to please her. A bigger set of fools you would go far to seek.

The narrative of Wolf Hall is not a strictly linear narrative, and much of Cromwell’s past is told in flashbacks. In the hands of a less experienced writer, these flashbacks would get tiresome, but Mantel handles them expertly, and they remain as fresh and vital as the book’s present day story, adding to the novel’s overall dreamlike and other-worldly atmosphere.

And Mantel, never one to skimp on details, certainly doesn’t skimp on them in Wolf Hall. The book is replete with the sound of seagulls, the cries of children trying to sell inexpensive trinkets, the smell of freshly baked bread, the feel of a lop-eared rabbit’s snowy fur.

Of course, one of the biggest hurdles Mantel had to overcome in writing Wolf Hall was the fact that we all know how this drama is going to spin itself out. We know the ending going in. In the end, all this foreknowledge doesn’t matter. Wolf Hall remains a page-turner from beginning to end, and when we reach the end, we feel satisfied, though Mantel has pretty much left things “up in the air.” It’s no spoiler to say that the last page of the book deals with Cromwell’s plans to visit Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour clan.

This could have backfired on Mantel. It could have left her novel with a flat sense of anticlimax. Instead, it causes the reader to reflect on how rapidly the tides of fortune can change, how fickle life and fate can be. It pulls at the heart. It made me want to spend even more time with Cromwell, with Jane Seymour, even with Henry.

In one final showdown prior to his execution, Cromwell says to More:

You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror. I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don’t try to make this simple.

Wolf Hall is not a simple book, and Mantel never tries to make it simple. She never underestimates her readers’ intelligence. At times, the book can be difficult and demanding and dark, but it is one of the most brilliant and rewarding books of the last decade, and Mantel is one of the world’s most brilliant writers. I look forward to the sequel with great anticipation and excitement.


Recommended: This is a gorgeous book, it’s a book that will forever change the way people remember Thomas Cromwell. It’s recommended for anyone who loves literary novels. This is not your “ordinary” historical novel, but a brilliant and brilliantly realized portrait of the court of King Henry VIII during the last days of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.

Note: Yes, I know. This review is too long despite that fact that it contains no spoilers. Wolf Hall is just so rich and so rewarding it’s hard to stop writing about it. And no, I did not do the book justice.