April 25, 2009
Wolf Hall by Hilary
Fourth Estate, Ł18.99; 672pp
There are some episodes of popular history that it’s easy to think you’ve had too much of. It only takes one too many TV series or supermarket novels and indigestion sets in. For instance, even the name Mary Queen of Scots makes me queasy. As for English history’s defining moment — when the Bluebeard king, Henry VIII, traded in his Spanish queen for a younger Protestant model and took England out of the Church of Rome (a period I’ve written about myself) — my stomach definitely turns.
So I was apprehensive about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, especially when I realised it would be looking at the break with Rome through the unattractive eyes of Thomas Cromwell. He was the man from nowhere whom Henry used to bring about the change of wives, and religious confessions, and get his hands on the wealth of England’s Catholic monasteries. In a portrait by Hans Holbein, Cromwell has the face of a greedy thug; sly little eyes fastened on the main chance. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to spend 700 pages with him.
But as soon as I opened the book I was gripped. I read it almost non-stop. When I did have to put it down, I was full of regret the story was over, a regret I still feel. This is a wonderful and intelligently imagined retelling of a familiar tale from an unfamiliar angle — one that makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago look new again, and shocking again, too.
For all his physical ugliness, Mantel’s Cromwell is a beguiling character. She reworks the stereotype of the ruthless Tudor backstabber, so that he becomes a softer-edged, more modern figure. He is a subtle, self-aware, self-disciplined entrepreneur: what we know as the self-made man.
This Cromwell has known hardship for most of his days, which is what has made him appreciate the finer things he has earned later in life. We see his whole learning curve: the scary childhood in Putney, the drunk abuser of a father. We see Cromwell the urchin, hanging round Lambeth Palace hoping for kitchen scraps; a watchful child who doesn’t forgive a snub from the Archbishop’s posh pageboy Thomas More. We see the boy with the bruises run away to sea and make a new life among the merchant grandees of Italy. In the counting-house he masters the finer points of how fortunes are made and wars won (the answer the same both times — just get the money right).
Perhaps most important, we’re shown the heart beating beneath the scarred skin. Cromwell’s marriage is contracted in businesslike fashion, but there’s love in it. When he comes home to find his wife struck dead by the sweating sickness, there’s just one howl of bewilderment, of “Liz, didn’t you fight?” and it’s in his head. Then he gets on quietly with dealing with a life in grief. There are out-and-out gold-diggers in this story, though, even if Cromwell isn’t one. We quickly rediscover the shock value of Anne Boleyn — the sheer madness of her ambition to get the King of England to forget the demands of blood and class that defined him, and England, and marry her to slake his desire. This Anne is a tiny skinny thing, with no breasts and a phoney French accent. Her ladies alternate between boredom and terror of her sparrow-on-speed intensity, but they always know she means business. They can, and do, tell the detail of exactly which inch of her body she’s allowing the love-crazed King to touch that day, in return for which of the titles, castles, or favours he has brought.
Readers may also be shocked by Mantel’s hostility to the Catholic Thomas More. Cromwell eventually replaces More as chancellor, once Catholicism goes out of fashion and More refuses to drop his faith. Cromwell’s men then bring about More’s downfall. Having written my own fictional (and negative) Thomas More, I was inter-ested in how she characterised him. Mantel cuts More no slack. Whether people love him or hate him — he’s a saint to Catholics, while Protestants tend to regard him as a torturer — on the whole they give him credit for nurturing a loving family. Mantel doesn’t give him even that. Her More is a cold fish who weds a woman he can’t love, then torments her for years.
It’s only a generation since More’s obstinacy made him a literary hero. Robert Bolt’s play had him as a good man who would rather die than be dishonoured. But how things have changed. We don’t want martyrs any more. We want something more flexible and pragmatic: a person of subtlety; a survivor. In Mantel’s rethinking of the Tudor drama, intriguingly, it’s Thomas Cromwell who is put forward, and plausibly too, as a new generation’s choice of Man for All Seasons.
A severe illness helped her discover a passion for storytelling and she now features on every literati's reading list, though she's yet to bag a major award. Perhaps her tenth novel, Wolf Hall, will win her the Man Booker
Sunday 19 April 2009
Though still a week away, the publication of Hilary Mantel's tenth novel, Wolf Hall, has already created an intense buzz. It doesn't have the tinniness of something manufactured or the chattery volume of word of mouth. It's a high-frequency hum of the kind that Mantel herself would capture compellingly.
And like everything else about her, it seems shadowed by another dimension. After all, this is the same prize-winning author who tells of rising in the early hours having dreamt an entire story; of typing it up and backing it up, only to wake again and find it vanished, the only evidence a printout that a nagging voice had bid her make.
Mantel was born in 1952 into a family of Irish Catholic descent. Her father was a clerk, her mother had been sent to work at the nearby mill at the age of 12, and home was a Derbyshire village close to Glossop. When she was seven, Mantel had a life-changing encounter with evil at the bottom of the garden, down among the weeds.
Reflecting on the difficulties of writing about it in her memoir, Giving up the Ghost, she pre-empts reader expectations of sexual abuse. "That's the usual horror. Mine is more diffuse. It wrapped a strangling hand around my life and I don't know how or what it was." Almost invisible, soundless and scentless, she recalls it as a slight disturbance in the air, a presence "high as a child of two". Somehow, she felt it enter her.
Filled with secrets and lies and ghosts, that memoir, published in 2003, reads like a source book for her fiction, a book of spells, perhaps. She never saw her father again after her mother replaced him with their lodger. They then moved to a small town in Cheshire where they all took the lodger's surname despite there being no legal divorce.
Mantel gave up going to church when she was about 12, but had stopped believing before then. What good was transubstantiation if it couldn't help her morph into the boy she'd longed to be in her early years? (At primary school, her favourite game was called Men, in which she acted the part of Bill.) Nevertheless, she attended a good convent school after passing her 11-plus, becoming "top girl" and going on to read law at the London School of Economics. A year later, she transferred to Sheffield to be with Gerald, the geology student she would soon marry.
By then, the pain had begun. At 19, she consulted a doctor about the aches in her legs and persistent lethargy. Her symptoms were dealt with as if they were mental - with anti-depressants, Valium, anti-psychotic pills that actually made her psychotic. The side-effects of each pill were treated with more pills; at one point, she was sent to hospital. From her bed, she wrote a story, all about a woman who believes her baby to be a changeling. When she told her psychiatrist about it, he forbade her to continue.
The experience left Mantel convinced of just one thing: she must never go near a psychiatrist or a psychotropic drug again. Meanwhile, the pain persisted, but so did the writing.
In 1977, Gerald accepted a posting to Botswana. In the African heat, exhausted and pained, she was capable of nothing more than sitting on the sofa with her notebook, jotting down a narrative set during the French Revolution. When the pain became unbearable, she retreated into medical textbooks, which is how she came to diagnose herself with endometriosis. The illness was perilously advanced by the time doctors confirmed it.
Christmas week of 1979 found her back in London, in St George's Hospital, being operated on or, as she puts it in Giving up the Ghost, "having my fertility confiscated and my insides rearranged". Shortly afterwards, her marriage unravelled (she divorced, though later remarried Gerald) and she developed a mild addiction to barbiturates.
Yet without the illness, she probably wouldn't have begun writing, she says. Something else helped: reading Sanity, Madness and the Family by the now deeply unfashionable RD Laing. Mantel still wonders how those case studies' stories ended, she said last year. The book gave her the confidence to tell the stories she knew. "If I wanted to be a writer, I didn't have to worry about inventing material; I'd already got it. The next stage was just to find some words."
The novel she wrote in Botswana wasn't published for some years. Her official debut sprang from that story about the changeling. Every Day Is Mother's Day appeared in 1985 and told of an agoraphobic clairvoyant, her sullen daughter and their social worker. Its fans included Penelope Lively.
Her second novel, Vacant Possession, was a sequel. Her third, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, described the plight of women under the Saudi regime, drawing on her experience of being posted there with Gerald.
"A peculiar fear emanates from this narrative; I dread to think what it did to the writer herself," confessed Anita Brookner.
Mantel's fiction has since roamed from psychological suspense to mystery and political thrillers and a coming-of-age tale. Giants and mythical beings feature, though its more nightmarish elements tend to be of earthly provenance. Her novel Beyond Black is the story of a home counties psychic who channels the dead's views on their relatives' new kitchen units. In private, she is haunted by her violent childhood and prodded and poked - literally - by a coarse spirit guide who sounds decidedly human. Conceived in the eerie wake of Princess Diana's death and set around the turn of the millennium, the novel's Middle England backdrop is a place of orbital road systems and starter homes, creepily disconnected.
Though Beyond Black was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, Mantel has grumbled about being responded to as woman writer. As she told Rachel Cooke in the Observer: "When you write, you're not either sex. But when you're read, you're definitely gendered."
Attempts to define Mantel and her work invariably fall short. Northern Gothic? Not really. Even isolating its components can be tricky. Take her pitchy humour: as critic Kate Saunders notes, "wit" doesn't convey the half of it. "Mantel is dreadfully funny - funny with an evil streak, as things are when you pass through the membrane of normality; funny like slapstick at a funeral."
So what can be said of the novels? Well, they are unflinching. They are also exuberant yet spare, dispassionate yet poignant, and kind in places, even though spite seems to be the emotion that best sums up her characters. Of all the modern writers, you sense Mantel is the one who would most astutely anatomise the Susan Boyle phenomenon.
Her prose is defined by sensual exactitude and it is vigorous, too, with an energy that derives from its rhythm. In her memoir, she recalls sitting in the infants' class, exasperated by her classmates' dimness. While they chorused the word chalked on the board - "Wri-i-i-ting" - she thought she'd liven things up, clapping her hands and singing it to a syncopated rhythm. The teacher was not impressed, but happily Mantel has been doing pretty much the same ever since. As she recently revealed on ABC's The Book Show, she sometimes dreams in verse. "I can never recall the poem when I wake up. I don't write poetry in waking life, but what the dream poem will do will be to set a rhythm, and if I'm writing that day then that rhythm will make its way into my prose."
There are broad themes, too. Peer beyond the spectral trappings and you'll find incisive meditations on the nature of belonging and the dynamics of power. Both feature prominently in her forthcoming Wolf Hall, which centres on the first Cromwell - Thomas, aide to Henry VIII - and majestically conjures up an England in the throes of epic change. It is, you could say, a Great British Novel, one that re-ties our links to history, links that had appeared severed in the Middle England of Beyond Black
It's tempting to make Mantel into one of her own characters. Her author picture - those wide eyes with their surprised brows - suggests a face made up of adjectives, one whose features have been described into being, like an elfish princess trapped by a spell. In a way, she is trapped. "There are plenty of books that tell you how to become a writer, but not one that suggests how, if you want a normal life, you might reverse the process," she commented in a recent column.
And there's also the question of her success. While considerable, there still seems to be a disparity between her talent and her renown. She appears in the reading lists of fellow writers, but has yet to win the Man Booker Prize, the Costa, the Orange. Her words appear everywhere, while she remains something of a spectral presence, living outside the orbit of literary London, on the top floor of a converted Victorian asylum in Surrey.
In the end, though, the glorious reality of her work puts an end to such fanciful musings. Mantel, for one, wouldn't tolerate them for a moment.
Born 6 July 1952 in Hadfield, near Glossop, Derbyshire, the eldest of three children. She never saw her father after her parents' marriage ended when she was 11, and she and her brothers took their common law stepfather's name. She is married, twice, to Gerald McEwan.
Best of times She might have been overlooked by judges of the nation's major literary awards, but in 2006 she was made an OBE. This year could be her chance to win the Man Booker.
Worst of times At Christmas 1979, surgery for a long undiagnosed illness left her unable to have children. At around the same time, her first novel was rejected, her marriage collapsed, and she developed a mild barbiturate addiction. (She has since replaced it with an addiction to semicolons.)
What she says "Hobgoblins, chimeras, piles of Medusa heads. You have to keep shocking your psyche, or nothing happens in your writing - nothing charged, nothing enduring. It's imaginary encounters with death that generate life on the page."
"In our brains, past and present co-exist; they occupy, as it were, adjoining rooms, but there are some rooms we never enter. We seem to have lost the keys; but they can be retrieved."
What others say "Mantel's writing is so exact and brilliant that, in itself, it seems an act of survival, even redemption." Critic Joan Acocella, in the New Yorker
The Sunday Telegraph
Lucy Hughes-Hallett marvels at Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's evocation of the physical reality and shifting morality of Henry VIII’s world
Last Updated: 10:35AM BST 28 Apr 2009
By Hilary Mantel
FOURTH ESTATE, Ł18.99, 650pp
It’s a raw night. Thomas Cromwell has left his master Wolsey (the cardinal’s pen will be scratching, scratching all night long like a rat in a mattress) and is making his way homewards. The boatmen are singing down by the Thames. Cromwell hears a faraway splash and screaming. He thinks: 'Perhaps they are drowning someone.’
It is typical of Hilary Mantel’s beautifully written and terrifying fiction that the miniature scene enacted way off in the background to the main action should be not some quaint pastoral practice or an amorous idyll but a murder. Mantel’s most recent book, Beyond Black, was as dark as its name: an earlier novel was inspired by a skeleton (that of the 18th-century Irish giant whose bones are in the Hunterian Museum). Mantel is a writer who sees the skull beneath the skin, the worm in the bud, the child abuse in the suburbs and the rat in the mattress.
Turning her attention to Tudor England, she makes that world at once so concrete you can smell the rain-drenched wool cloaks and feel the sharp fibres of the rushes underfoot, and so weird its people believe themselves surrounded by boggarts and black-fanged serpent queens. It’s a world of marvels, not the least of which is that the beaten child of a plebeian drunk can become the King’s chief minister. But it is also a world of horrors, where screams are commonplace.
Thomas Cromwell is Mantel’s hero and our viewpoint. Clever, watchful, the outsider on his way in to power, he’s an excellent choice. He is erudite and well-travelled and he looks like (and probably is) a murderer. He is interested in everything, from heresy to kitchen hygiene. Mantel uses the third person, but we are with Cromwell always, seeing through his eyes. He is sexual, but careful with it.
He has his loyalties and beliefs, but is aware of their dangers. He loves finery, but he knows what it costs. There is plenty in this book of the gorgeous detail that makes historical fiction so pleasurable – the damask and velvet, the tapestries and jewels. But here material things aren’t just décor.
Cromwell has been a cloth merchant in Antwerp. He knows the value and provenance of every arras. 'Price me,’ orders Wolsey. It’s a game between them; the cardinal swaggering in his scarlet, the servant who will outlive and outstrip him estimating the yardage and price of the silk in which he is swathed. And when Wolsey falls (Mantel’s description of his dispossession is marvellously painful) the cloth motif recurs, as metaphor and myth. Wolsey’s precious embroidered copes, so stiffly gem-encrusted they can stand on their own, have their knees kicked in and spines broken before being stashed roughly for confiscation. Wolsey, on his knees in the mud, lamenting and imploring, is 'unravelling’ into a scarlet thread that leads into a labyrinth 'with a dying monster at its heart’. From counting-house to Knossos, Mantel’s range of reference is wide and, in the brilliant autodidact Cromwell, she has chosen a surrogate mind which can convincingly contain it.
As a child Cromwell asks why it is necessary to nail down coffin lids over the dead. 'So the horrible old buggers don’t spring out and chase us’ comes the answer (Mantel’s prose veers with exquisite control between the curlicued elegancies of Renaissance court language and brutal colloquialism). But it’s really the living that chase the dead, reinventing them, tumbling them from their shrouds and thrusting 'words like stones into their rattling mouths’. Mantel reanimates familiar characters. She uses the present tense almost throughout. We are in media res, seeing these glittering figures not as in a distant pageant, but close-up: Henry, berating Bishop Gardiner in an ear-throbbing shriek, and taking the news that Ann Boleyn’s baby is a daughter as though it were blow at the jousts; that baby – little pig-faced, red-bristled Elizabeth – 'he has never seen an infant so ready to take offence’; Thomas More, not the mild man for all seasons, but a self-flagellating, wife-baiting torturer.
This is a splendidly ambitious book, ample enough to hold a crowd of people and to encompass historical events across all of Europe (the sack of Rome is described in one vivid paragraph) and hint at at least another novel’s worth of themes. It ends with More’s execution – which provides a satisfactory stopping place, but which leaves the monasteries undissolved, Ann Boleyn still alive and the only hint of a happy ending one which anyone who remembers Henry’s marital history will know is not going to work out. I wait greedily for the sequel, but Wolf Hall is already a feast.
Last Updated: 5:07PM BST 27 Apr 2009
by Hilary Mantel
652pp, Fourth Estate, Ł18.99
It begins when we are children, the desire to colour in the bold outlines of the Tudors. We know so much – the clothes, jewels, buildings, battles, the sudden savagery of royal justice – and yet so little about the thoughts and feelings of even the literate players. Every generation throws up its own colourists, hacks who provide the lurid scenes their trade demands. Their books sell, but never last.
Every now and then an artist of another mettle is drawn into the Tudor fray, and turns everything we knew on its head. Characters are no longer fixed, conviction becomes evasion, courage a moveable feast. In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel rewrites the history of England from 1527 to 1535 with Thomas Cromwell as the hero.
We meet him first as the victim of his violent father, a Putney blacksmith. He runs away from home and Mantel leaves him to grow up alone. We see him next in the service of Cardinal Wolsey and we only learn of those years in between from what Cromwell reveals, which isn’t much: some years as a mercenary in France, some more with the bankers in Florence, some time as a clothier, some more as a lawyer. The cardinal, a study in mocking courtesy and worldly detachment, is delighted by his protégé’s obscure origins: they give him the opportunity to paint his character. We meet this character intermittently through the pages of Wolf Hall, long after Wolsey himself has faded from the picture. The king, for example, believes Cromwell was brought up in a monastery, which gives him a special aptitude for the cardinal’s work of closing down religious houses to build schools and colleges.
Cromwell is a reformer, but not a zealot. He finds old practices unsavoury – hairshirts, paying for relief from purgatory – but he is also exasperated by the obstinacy of those such as Tyndale, on whose behalf he tries to broker a deal. His radicalism has more to do with caste than God. He plays the great game with no respect for rank. When the Duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s uncle, rants about the cheek of Wolsey – “Cardinal’s hat not big enough for him, only a crown will do for Thomas bloody Wolsey the bleeding butcher’s boy, and I tell you, I tell you” – Cromwell privately thinks: “My lord would have made such an excellent king; so benign, so sure and suave in his dealings, so equitable, so swift and so discerning. His rule would have been the best rule, his servants the best servants; and how he would have enjoyed his state.”
Mantel’s insight is that Norfolk and co had reason enough to hate and fear Cromwell without Cromwell needing to be either hateful or fearful. It was enough that he was a low-born outsider unencumbered by conviction (“believe nobody” he advises his ward) with one line to the king and another to the moneylenders. He is flattered by Thomas More’s account of his character – “lock 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 chooses his pupils in the counting room with the refinement that the king reserves for his ambassadors: “The page of an accounts book is there … to open your heart to possibility. It’s like the scriptures: it’s there for you to think about, and initiate action. Love your neighbour. Study the market. Increase the spread of benevolence. Bring in better figures next year.”
In the end, however wedded you are to subtle revisions and shades of grey, you cannot back Cromwell without spitting on More. Mantel’s More is physically grubby and mentally vain, gleefully seeking out, torturing and burning suspected heretics, maudlin and self-regarding in his familial relations. It is a shocking revision of this reader’s pieties, brilliantly done. At Chelsea we see the saint presiding over a household where his pompous lawyer father is loved and indulged while the women (except Meg, the Greek-scholar daughter) are routinely taunted. When Cromwell dines there, the conversation is in Latin, which More’s wife, Dame Alice, does not know:
“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.”
This in contrast to Cromwell’s establishment at Austin Friars, which teems with in-laws and wards and nephews and abandoned wives who are light and joshing in their heresies and fallouts. Neither children nor servants are whipped. Cromwell’s wife, a sensible homely woman, dies early on and his daughters not long after. These losses humanise him and when Cranmer shuffles onto the scene it makes sense that Cromwell should be the confidant of his marriage secrets. Henry hated married clergy, but Cranmer couldn’t help himself and Cromwell warms to the man’s weakness.
In lesser hands Cromwell’s modern sympathies – believing in nurture over nature, loving over burning, learning over prayer – might make for a lifeless and anachronistic portrait. But the devil is in the language and Mantel animates the familiar story with great imagination. Cromwell, summoned to see the king in his bedchamber after a bad dream, finds him covered in a gown of sable-lined velvet. “The sable lining creeps down over his hands, as if he were a monster-king, growing his own fur.” Later we see the rubies clustered on the king’s knuckles “like bubbles of blood” and Norfolk in his agitation jumping up and down “like Satan in a Corpus Christi play”.
Mantel knows how to build a picture from the parts available, with nothing extraneous and everything layered. Here is Katherine – “as wide as she is high, stitched into gowns so bristling with gemstones that they look as if they are designed less for beauty than to withstand blows from a sword … Under her gowns she wears the habit of a Franciscan nun.” Cromwell remembers Wolsey’s lesson: always try to find out what people wear under their clothes. “At an earlier stage in life this would have surprised him; he had thought that under their clothes people wore their skin.”
So would I.
Olivia Laing applauds Hilary Mantel's dazzling recreation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's marriage fixer
Sunday 26 April 2009
by Hilary Mantel
What is it about hearty, heartless Henry VIII that, five centuries on, scriptwriters and novelists still buzz about him like wasps around jam? The fascination is not confined to Anne Boleyn's heaving bosom, whatever Philippa Gregory might have you think. Nor is it simply the glittering dramatic possibilities of period betrayal and bloodshed: those starched ruffs, that retinue of doomed wives.
Henry's reign continues to draw us because it is the moment that the past comes into focus and becomes recognisably our own. The problems of Tudor Britain - social mobility, religious freedom, the ongoing tussle between individual, church and state - have not been resolved with the passing of the years. Henry's sexually motivated struggle to wrest his country away from the Catholic church can be seen as the origin story of our own age, the moment that England broke free from Rome and began to worship and think in its native tongue.
It's a story, then, about power. As such, it is no coincidence that this brutal, sophisticated era has attracted the attentions of Hilary Mantel, whose over-arching theme has always been the battle between the weak and the strong. Over two decades, she has gained a reputation as an elegant anatomiser of malevolence and cruelty. From the French Revolution of A Place of Greater Safety (1992) to the Middle England of Beyond Black (2005), hers are scrupulously moral - and scrupulously unmoralistic - books that refuse to shy away from the underside of life, finding even in disaster a kind of bleak and unconsoling humour. It is that supple movement between laughter and horror that makes this rich pageant of Tudor life her most humane and bewitching novel.
Though set in Henry's court and, overwhelmingly, about his long, panting battle to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Wolf Hall is really the story of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's boy who became the king's right-hand man. When we first meet Thomas, he is sprawled on the floor, bloody and beaten. His father, drunken Walter, has just put the boot in and not for the first time. "Inch by inch forward," he orders himself, as he crawls, spewing and fainting, resolutely out of the life he was born to.
Inch by inch forward proves a brilliant strategy. The next time this battered stripling is seen, he is the groomed and dazzlingly competent lawyer of the king's chief adviser: Cardinal Wolsey, the de facto ruler of England. It's quite a leap for a boy who doesn't even know his own birthday, and it's not the only one that Cromwell will make in his vertiginous life. Mantel has always been obsessed by the capriciousness of fortune and in a novel full of bounds and tumbles, she provides a masterclass in the tragic arc of ascent and decline.
The first to topple is the cardinal. Wolsey is initially encountered at the peak of his powers, a leopard of a man, clad in scarlet so fine he likes to be priced by the yard. The problem that besets him and that propels the book into motion is that Henry's marriage to Catherine has failed to produce the vital heir. Henry's analysis is simple: Catherine was his dead brother's wife, and Leviticus plainly states that if one marries one's brother's relict, one shall not breed. Unfortunately for the cardinal and all who must do the king's bidding, that's not the scripture the Church of Rome ordains. On such subtleties does history swing.
Wolsey's inability to broker a divorce is as good as a death sentence. Despite his "wit, his sense of wonder and of beauty, his instinct for decorum and pleasure, his finesse", this exquisite, preening man is stripped of his robes, his riches and eventually his life. The cardinal's loss is Cromwell's gain. Immune to the courtiers' disgust, this pirate from the Putney riverbank ascends through the ranks to become Henry's most trusted guide. Eventually, even the bitter Duke of Norfolk comes to rely on him. After all, what can't he do? He knows the whole New Testament by heart; "He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." If anyone can free the king from the trusses of his marriage, it is the blacksmith's son.
The real Thomas Cromwell stares out of a portrait by Holbein, stern, venal and implacable. But the joy of a historical novel is that it chivvies the dead into dancing life, revealing the humanity that has flaked away from the official record. With her magpie's eye for the telling detail, Mantel is an adept resurrectionist. Even the curses ring true: "God's Blood" or "By the Mass". The court is a glittering chamber of horrors, presided over by the Machiavellian Anne Boleyn, "a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes".
This is a burstingly large book, so densely peopled that the cast-list alone takes up five pages. It rattles back and forth across the Channel and reaches, sometimes confusingly, back through time. Much of Cromwell's past is told in flashbacks - somnolent, slippery sequences that add to the novel's dreamlike sense. For all her meticulous historical reconstruction, Mantel's world remains a strange place, permeated by the many dead. None the less, it is both linguistically and sensually vital, stacked with images and phrases that linger in the mind.
If the dance between king and mistress is expertly choreographed, it is Mantel's presentation of the common realm - the seething streets of Putney and Wimbledon, populated by drapers and boatmen - that gives this novel the force of revelation. The backdrop to the king's quest for sexual liberation is the daily horror of London life. Even Wolsey burns books, but Thomas More, the hair-shirted lord chancellor, burns men. (In many ways, Wolf Hall is a riposte to Robert Bolt's acclaimed 1960s play A Man For All Seasons, which casts More as saint and Cromwell as sinner.)
The church protects its interests by murdering dissenters; reading the Bible in English is a crime punishable by death. This is what lies behind Henry's struggle with the Pope: the England of the common man, who can be ripped limb from limb for daring to suggest that "God on the altar is a piece of bread". By centring her narrative on the humane and free-thinking Thomas Cromwell, who believes in kindness, tolerance and education, Mantel has found a way to reconfigure the tired tale of Henry's lust and what it led to. Henry might want a son so desperately that he is willing to make war with the Pope, but Cromwell, who dreams of a nation that can talk and learn and worship freely, is revealed as the true author of England's independence.
But though this tattered yarn has been spectacularly rewoven, the problem Mantel has is that every reader knows how it ends - with Anne beheaded and Henry reeling to the altar four times more. Her solution is to stop abruptly, almost flatly, with a gesture toward the future and all that the future holds. It would not be giving away too much to say that Wolf Hall, a place never visited but often referred to, is the home of one Jane Seymour, and that as the novel halts, it is where Cromwell is bound.
It's a risky thing to do and the danger is a lurching sense of anticlimax. But it lets Mantel attempt something truly original. By ending without a dramatic resolution, she allows the "what happened next" of the historical record to underscore her central, sobering message: that human kindness and idealism are no match for the fickleness of fortune. In our last glimpse of him, Cromwell's ascendancy endures. In the unwritten coda to the story, though, he, too, must tumble. After brokering two more royal weddings and overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries, Cromwell was executed by Henry in 1540 for failing to provide a suitable bride. His boiled head was left on a spike on London Bridge, turned emphatically away from the city he loved.
Not a word of this is mentioned in Wolf Hall. It is, none the less, the tragedy it ends with: the last lesson in a thrilling, disquieting sermon of what ignorance and caprice can wreak. This is a beautiful and profoundly humane book, a dark mirror held up to our own world. And the fact that its conclusion takes place after the curtain has fallen only proves that Hilary Mantel is one of our bravest as well as most brilliant writers.
Henry's fighting dog
Wolf Hall , by Hilary Mantel ,653pp, Fourth Estate,
Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII who oversaw the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, was widely hated in his lifetime, and he makes a surprising fictional hero now. Geoffrey Elton used to argue that he founded modern government, but later historians have pared back his role, and one recent biographer, Robert Hutchinson, portrayed him as a corrupt proto-Stalinist. He's a sideshow to Wolsey in Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII, a villain who hounds Thomas More to his death in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Law and financial administration - his main activities - don't always ignite writers' imaginations, and in the pop-Foucauldian worldview of much historical fiction since the 1980s, his bureaucratic innovations would be seen as inherently sinister. Then there's the portrait of him, after Holbein: a dewlapped man in dark robes with a shrewd, unfriendly face, holding a folded paper like an upturned dagger. He looks, as Hilary Mantel has him say in her new novel, "like a murderer".
In Wolf Hall, Mantel persuasively depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs manoeuvrer as one of the most appealing - and, in his own way, enlightened - characters of the period. Taking off from the scant evidence concerning his early life, she imagines a miserable childhood for him as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith in Putney. Already displaying toughness, intelligence and a gift for languages, he runs away to the continent as a boy of 15 or so (his date of birth isn't known, and in the novel he doesn't know it himself). At this point, only 16 pages in, the action cuts to 1527, with Cromwell back in England, "a little over forty years old" and a trusted agent of Cardinal Wolsey. His life-shaping experiences in France, Italy and the Netherlands are dealt with in flashback here and there: he has been a soldier, a trader and an accountant for a Florentine bank; he has killed a man and learned to appreciate Italian painting.
Mantel's Cromwell is an omnicompetent figure, "at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." Fluent in many languages, learned, witty and thoughtful, he's also an intimidating physical presence; Wolsey fondly compares him to "one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes". This makes him an ideal emissary for Wolsey's project of liquidating some smaller monasteries to fund a school and an Oxford college. But self-advancement isn't Cromwell's only motive. He's disgusted by the waste and superstition he encounters, and takes a materialist view of relics and indulgences. The feudal mindset of Wolsey's rival grandees seems equally outdated to him: jibes at his lowly origins bounce off his certainty that noble blood and feats of arms now count for less than lines of credit and nicely balanced books.
The first half of the novel, built around Wolsey's fall from power, details Cromwell's domestic setup at Austin Friars and introduces the major players in Tudor politics. Without clobbering the reader with the weight of her research, Mantel works up a 16th-century world in which only a joker would call for cherries in April or lettuce in December, and where hearing an unlicensed preacher is an illicit thrill on a par with risking syphilis. The civil wars that brought the Tudors to the throne still make older people shudder, bringing Henry's obsession with producing a male heir into focus. And the precarious nature of early modern life is brought home by the abrupt deaths of Cromwell's wife and daughters, carried off by successive epidemics in moving but unsentimentally staged scenes. Cromwell asks if he can bury his elder daughter with a copybook she's written her name in; "the priest says he has never heard of such a thing".
Grieving, he thinks of Tyndale's banned English Bible: "now abideth faith, hope and love, even these three; but the greatest of these is love." More, he knows, thinks "love" is "a wicked mistranslation. He insists on 'charity' . . . He would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you." In the second half of the novel - which charts Cromwell's rise to favour as he clears the way for the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn - More emerges as Cromwell's opposite number, more a spokesman for another worldview than a practical antagonist. Shabbily dressed, genial, yet punctiliously correct on politically controversial points, this More is a far cry from Bolt's gentle humanist martyr. He's made repulsive even more by the self-adoring theatricality behind his modest exterior than by his interest in torturing heretics and contemptuous treatment of his wife. He ends up stage-managing his own destruction out of narcissism and fanaticism, or at best a cold idealism that's contrasted unfavourably with Cromwell's reforming worldliness.
For all its structural and thematic importance, however, Cromwell's conflict with More is only part of a wider battle caused by Henry's desire to have his first marriage annulled. Much space is given over to court politics, which Mantel manages to make comprehensible without downplaying its considerable complexity. Central figures - the Boleyn sisters, Catherine of Aragon, the young Mary Tudor, the king himself - are brought plausibly to life, as are Cromwell's wife, Liz Wykys, and Cardinal Wolsey. Determined, controlled but occasionally impulsive, and a talented hater, Mantel's Anne Boleyn is a more formidable character even than her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, portrayed here as a scheming old warhorse who rattles a bit when he moves on account of all the relics and holy medals concealed about his person.
Making characters of all these people is, of course, a big risk. How do you write about Henry VIII without being camp or breathless or making him do something clunkily non-stereotypical? Mantel attacks the problem from several angles, starting by knowing a lot about the period but not drawing attention to how strenuously she's imagining it. Meaty dialogue takes precedence over description, and the present-tense narration is so closely tied to the main character that Cromwell is usually called plain "he", even when it causes ambiguities. Above all, Mantel avoids ye olde-style diction, preferring more contemporary phrasing. Small rises in the level of language are frequently used for comic effect, as in: "Well, I tell you, Lady Shelton, if she had had an axe to hand, she would have essayed to cut off my head." The effortless-seeming management of contrasting registers plays a big part in the novel's success, as does Mantel's decision to let Cromwell have a sense of humour.
"Love your neighbour. Study the market. Increase the spread of benevolence. Bring in better figures next year." If not a man for all seasons, the book's heroic accountant is surely the man for his season. Mantel keeps too close an eye on facts and emotions to make her story an arch allegory of modern Britain's origins, but her setting of such unglamorous virtues as financial transparency and legal clarity against the forces of reaction and mystification is interesting and mildly provocative. At the same time, sinister grace notes accompany Cromwell's triumph. Wolf Hall, the Seymour family seat, is a site of scandal in the novel, a place where men prey on women and the old on the young. It's also where Jane Seymour first caught Henry's eye - an event that falls just outside the book's time scheme, but which serves as a reminder that, whatever their status in 1535, most of the major characters will end up with their heads on the block.
Mantel is a prolific, protean figure who doesn't fit into many of the established pigeonholes for women writers, and whose output ranges from the French revolution (A Place of Greater Safety) to her own troubled childhood (Giving Up the Ghost). Maybe this book will win one of the prizes that have been withheld so far. A historian might wonder about the extent to which she makes Cromwell a modern rationalist in Renaissance dress; a critic might wonder if the narrator's awe at the central character doesn't sometimes make him seem as self-mythologising as his enemies. But Wolf Hall succeeds on its own terms and then some, both as a non-frothy historical novel and as a display of Mantel's extraordinary talent. Lyrically yet cleanly and tightly written, solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances, and very funny at times, it's not like much else in contemporary British fiction. A sequel is apparently in the works, and it's not the least of Mantel's achievements that the reader finishes this 650-page book wanting more.
May 3, 2009
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate Ł18.99 pp650
As a historical novelist, Hilary Mantel is no minimalist. A previous foray into the genre, A Place of Greater Safety (1992), compressed the drama of the French revolution into 900 bulging pages. In her new book, a bustling account of England’s Reformation, she restricts herself to just 650. Modest enough, you might think, until you reach the final chapter and realise we are still in 1535 and there are at least five more years to be squeezed into a promised second volume.
The individual through whom Mantel channels her portrait of these tumultuous times is Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief enforcer during the 1530s and a man who has often been harshly treated by history (the title of a recent book, Thomas Cromwell: Machiavellian Statecraft and the English Reformation, gives some idea of his equivocal reputation). Wolf Hall, a vibrant, often compelling mix of the personal and the political, wants to rescue him from the mud into which some historians have thrown him, while also exploring the tangled loyalties, moral confusions and shifting sensibilities of the period.
Cromwell is an arrestingly complex figure in Mantel’s retelling. When we first meet him, as a youth, he is on his face in the Putney grime, being kicked half to death by his violent, drunken blacksmith father. When he next appears, one chapter and 27 years later, it is as Cardinal Wolsey’s fixer, a calm, judicious and occasionally sly and threatening figure who has put his years abroad — as a soldier, merchant and polyglot financier — to good use in conducting his master’s business. As Wolsey falls, as Anne Boleyn plots to replace Catherine of Aragon as Henry’s wife, as the Protestant sect gains ground over the one true faith, and as the court shifts and shifts again around the capricious king, we watch the lowly Cromwell rise up the pecking order, to the confusion of those around him. (“Where does the fellow spring from,” a bemused Duke of Suffolk asks Henry.)
What makes Cromwell particularly attractive is the perspective from which his story is told. Although the book is written in the third person, it is a peculiarly intimate third person, one that allows us, for nearly all those 650 pages, to feel as if we are inside his head (he never leaves the stage). As a result, he comes across as a surprisingly sympathetic character — loyal, modest, humane, considerate to women (unlike his archrival, Thomas More), a man who privately rails against the fraud and idleness of the monasteries. It is left to the reader — picking through the evidence, weighing Cromwell’s actions against their repercussions, comparing his actions to those of the vengeful More — to judge the morality of the man. (“Do you think I look like a murderer,” he keeps asking his friends. He might as well be addressing us.)
The book has many other alluring qualities. Mantel’s characterisation is acute — whether of the wilful and spoilt Anne, of Catherine (“rigid in her boned bodice”) or the bluff and splenetic Duke of Norfolk. Despite the novel’s length, there is, too, a remarkable compression to the style and the individual scenes, which allows events to trip over each other in the confusion of the everyday. Above all, Mantel’s recreation of the era feels both accurate and natural. By focusing, not on the famous set-pieces, but on the human interaction taking place around them, she makes the reader complicit in the drama. “The fate of peoples is made like this,” she writes towards the end, “two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes.” The quote could stand as a motif for the whole book.
But — and there are two considerable buts here — such qualities bring their own problems, which Mantel fails to deal with convincingly. One is the question of perspective. Cromwell’s apparent benignity, despite the clues to the contrary scattered through the text, appears so overwhelming that at various points it almost undermines the entire novel. Indeed, in the last few pages, Mantel’s fondness for her man nearly tips over into sentimentality.
The other problem has to do with that question of length. One wouldn’t accuse War and Peace of being too long, but then Tolstoy had an acute sense of pace, mixing foreground and background, the wide and the narrow to telling effect. Wolf Hall (the name of Jane Seymour’s country house and the last words in the book) is much less sure on its feet here. Indeed, the way the scenes seem to crowd in on each other, the way the throng of often confusing characters passes before our eyes (the cast list runs to five pages), and the sheer volume of detail, have a deleterious effect on the whole project, slowing its pace, chipping away at its contours, softening its definition. Mantel spoke in an interview recently of the need for writers to be ruthless in their pruning. Despite the crispness of the individual scenes, she does not seem to have taken her own advice to heart. The effect, sadly, is to turn a potentially outstanding novel into merely a commendable one.
October 5, 2009
By JANET MASLIN
By Hilary Mantel
532 pages. Henry Holt. $27.
It is a famous portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger: Thomas Cromwell in his finery, about 1534, looking formidable and clutching a piece of paper while he sits at a desk that holds the implements he used to write Henry VIII’s correspondence and draft Henry VIII’s laws. In “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s arch, elegant, richly detailed biographical novel centered on Cromwell, she has used Holbein’s delivery of the portrait as the basis for a dagger-sharp moment of truth.
“Hans has made his skin smooth as the skin of a courtesan,” Ms. Mantel’s Cromwell thinks when he sees the picture, “but the motion he has captured, that folding of the fingers, is as sure as that of a slaughterman’s when he picks up the killing knife.” Cromwell tells his son, Gregory, that he was once told he looked like a murderer and now sees that the assessment was perhaps accurate.
“Did you not know?” Gregory replies.
It is Ms. Mantel’s velvet-gloved delivery of such devastating observations, her book’s broad historical sweep and her counterintuitive choice to make Cromwell its primary focus that have helped make “Wolf Hall” a widely favored contender for this year’s Man Booker Prize, which will be awarded on Tuesday.
Cromwell is familiar as a secondary figure to his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, in Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII”; a villainous antagonist to the noble Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”; and the powerful fixer who enabled his king to repudiate the Roman Catholic Church in order to marry Anne Boleyn. But he has usually been overshadowed, perhaps for a lack of noble qualities and perhaps because much about his early life is unknown.
Ms. Mantel takes an extremely contemporary approach to Cromwell by appreciating his toughness, his keen political instincts, his financial acumen and his intimate knowledge of the workings of power. Almost unimaginable, in the midst of Henry’s impetuousness, Anne’s ambition and More’s self-righteous condescension, Cromwell emerges as the most sympathetic member of the wolf pack that populates “Wolf Hall.”
This witty, densely populated book may experience a rough passage when it crosses the Atlantic. For readers not fully versed in the nuances of England’s tangled royal bloodlines, not amused by Ms. Mantel’s deliberate obliqueness (“half the world is called Thomas,” the book observes, and it is in no hurry to differentiate one Thomas from another — or even to use proper names when a “he,” “him” or “his” will do) or not even familiar with the effect of the law of praemunire on the papacy, “Wolf Hall” has its share of stumbling blocks.
And this is a book that, while dealing with historical events of monumental importance, presents them in the form of conspiratorial small talk rather than action. A fall from grace may be represented by the uprooting of a household or the repainting of a coat of arms. None of these stylistic affectations is accidental. To deliberate but uneven effect, Ms. Mantel means to suggest that history itself is ever mutable and difficult to grasp.
But her book’s main characters are scorchingly well rendered. And their sharp-clawed machinations are presented with nonstop verve in a book that can compress a wealth of incisiveness into a very few well-chosen words. When Cardinal Wolsey speaks of the king to Cromwell, then his young protégé, he says: “If your chance comes to serve, you will have to take him as he is, a pleasure-loving prince. And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom.”
Cromwell’s toughness begins in childhood. (He is first seen being savagely beaten by his father.) But after Cromwell goes abroad, becomes a skilled financier and returns to Tudor circles, he develops a courtier’s polish without remotely dimming his caustic powers of observation. The occasion on which Cromwell confers with first the king of England and then the king of France (who calls him “Monsieur Cremuel”) is a moment that makes Cromwell wish his now-dead father could appreciate his upward mobility.
Ms. Mantel also has improbable success in reinventing Anne Boleyn. Or at least she succeeds in newly underscoring Anne’s debt to Niccolo, as this book’s characters refer to Machiavelli. With the king’s friends, Cromwell notices: “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.”
And when Anne bears a daughter who can seemingly never inherit the throne (though she will of course grow up to be Queen Elizabeth I), Ms. Mantel provides a prime example of acerbic flair. The baby is described as “an ugly, purple, grizzling knot of womankind, with an upstanding ruff of pale hair and a habit of kicking up her gown as if to display her most unfortunate feature.”
Deft and diabolical as they are, Ms. Mantel’s slyly malicious turns of phrase would count for little more than banter if they could not succinctly capture the important struggles that have set her characters to talking. But she is able to place Cromwell on plausibly familiar terms with royalty and on a fair moral footing with More, that paragon of self-sacrifice.
“You call history to your aid, but what is history to you?” Cromwell asks More in a final, ferocious showdown. “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 far too tricky a book to let Cromwell’s pronouncement be taken at face value. He is, after all, the king’s wily advocate. And he is never without an agenda. But this much is certain: More’s downfall has been assured by the time Cromwell finishes with him. Cromwell’s troubles, which will be no less lethal, are barely stirring when “Wolf Hall” ends. It is to be hoped that Ms. Mantel makes Cromwell’s endgame part of her future.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
By Ross King
October 8, 2009
Thomas Cromwell is probably best known through James Frain's portrayal of him in
the popular Showtime series "The Tudors": a brooding, black-clad figure in a
popped collar who engineers Henry VIII's marriages and dissolves the monasteries
before his career ends in one of the series' most horrifically unforgettable
This shrewd political fixer is the protagonist -- though in a completely different guise -- in Hilary Mantel's ambitious new novel, "Wolf Hall," which was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize for fiction earlier this week. At its core, her story is familiar enough. Henry VIII breaks with Rome so he can annul his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, who has failed to produce a male heir, and marry Anne Boleyn, whom he hopes will. Sir Thomas More refuses to swear an oath recognizing Henry as head of the Church of England and Anne as his queen. His reward -- that of all those who thwart Henry -- is a date with the executioner.
Mantel's version of these events is far more subtle and intricate than anything imagined by the writers of "The Tudors." She is at her best when turning her penetrating novelistic gaze to history, as she's done previously in "A Place of Greater Safety" (1993) and "The Giant, O'Brien" (1998). The former novel filtered the disorder of the French Revolution through the complex motives and desires of its group of protagonists. In "Wolf Hall," likewise, the English Reformation is the chaotic and convoluted outcome of multiple and competing interests. There is little idealism or heroism here -- just self-serving diplomatic games, verbal jousts, petty quarrels and endless jockeying for position.
Mantel's abilities to channel the life and lexicon of the past are nothing short of astonishing. She burrows down through the historical record to uncover the tiniest, most telling details, evoking the minutiae of history as vividly as its grand sweep. The dialogue is so convincing that she seems to have been, in another life, a stenographer taking notes in the taverns and palaces of Tudor England.
There are double takes aplenty, however, for those who get their history through films such as "A Man for All Seasons" or "Anne of a Thousand Days," never mind "The Tudors." Prepare for some seismic historical revisions. Mantel's Henry VIII is neither the bloated monster of popular legend nor the svelte sex machine played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Instead, he's a balding, middle-aged hypochondriac who is prone to bursting into tears. He is also -- prepare yourself -- no good in bed.
It's Sir Thomas More, though, who truly goes through the shredder. So, you thought More was the valiant, dignified saint from "A Man for All Seasons," the hero of conscience prepared to stand up to secular powers and die for his faith? Alas, no. Mantel presents him as a self-flagellating Catholic zealot who beats his servants, bullies his wife and tortures Protestants in horrible ways. He is not a man of conscience but a creature of worldly vanity, more interested in keeping face than keeping faith. "More is too proud to retreat from his position," Cromwell observes after failing to get More to swear the oath. "He is afraid to lose his credibility with the scholars of Europe."
Against More's faith Mantel opposes Cromwell's reason. Whereas More reads the Bible only to have his fixed opinions happily confirmed, Cromwell questions orthodoxy, dogmatism and superstition. For him, "what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little. . . . Show me where it says, in the Bible, 'Purgatory.' Show me where it says 'relics, monks, nuns.' Show me where it says 'Pope.' " Not one for hocus-pocus of any sort, he's also against astrology and the Arthurian legends.
This cold rationality makes Cromwell a frustratingly passionless creature -- a Machiavellian without the panache. By the time Mantel's story truly begins, in 1527, his days of excitement (soldiering in Italy) are long past, recollected only in snatches. A great love from his younger days, Anselma, is merely hinted at. He has an affair with his dead wife's sister -- but the sex is strictly off-page, referred to in a couple of blink-and-you'll-miss-them passages. He briefly takes a shine to Jane Seymour but does nothing about it. When his trusty factotum confesses to being "violently in love" with a girl, Cromwell asks: "How does that feel?"
How, indeed. A functionary who trots around obediently on the business of his superiors, Cromwell understands loyalty, not love. In our technocratic age of spin doctors and policy wonks, it's maybe inevitable that he, and not More, should become our new patron saint.
King is the author of many books, including "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" and "Ex-Libris: A Novel."
November 1, 2009
By CHRISTOPHER BENFEY
By Hilary Mantel
532 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company. $27
“Try always,” says the worldly Cardinal Wolsey in “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s fictional portrait of Henry VIII’s turbulent court, “to find out what people wear under their clothes.” Katherine of Aragon, the queen who can’t produce an heir, wears a nun’s habit. Anne Boleyn, the tease eager to supplant her, won’t let the king know what she’s wearing until their wedding night; she says “yes, yes, yes” to him, “then she says no.” Thomas More, willing to go to any lengths to prevent the marriage, wears a shirt of bristling horsehair, which mortifies his flesh until the sores weep. As for Thomas Cromwell, the fixer who does the king’s dirty work just as he once did the cardinal’s, what is he hiding under his lawyer’s sober winter robes? Something “impermeable,” Hans Holbein suspects as he paints Cromwell’s forbidding portrait. Armor, maybe, or stone.
Go to the Frick Collection in New York and compare Holbein’s great portraits of Cromwell and More. More has all the charm, with his sensitive hands and his “good eyes’ stern, facetious twinkle,” in Robert Lowell’s description. By contrast, Cromwell, with his egg-shaped form hemmed in by a table and his shifty fish eyes turned warily to the side, looks official and merciless, his clenched fist, as Mantel writes, “sure as that of a slaughterman’s when he picks up the killing knife.” One of the many achievements of Mantel’s dazzling novel, winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, is that she has reversed the appeal of these towering rivals of the Tudor period, that fecund breeding ground of British historical fiction as the American Civil War is of ours.
Cromwell is the picaresque hero of the novel — tolerant, passionate, intellectually inquisitive, humane. We follow his winding quest in vivid present-tense flashbacks, drawn up from his own prodigious memory: how he left home before he was 15, escaping the boot of his abusive father, a brewer and blacksmith who beat him as if he were “a sheet of metal”; how he dreamed of becoming a soldier and went to France because “France is where they have wars.” Cromwell learns banking in Florence, trading in Antwerp. He marries, has children and watches helplessly as the plague decimates his family.
In short, Cromwell learns everything everywhere, at a time when European knowledge about heaven and earth, via Copernicus and Machiavelli, is exploding. At 40, he “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” He knows the entire New Testament by heart, having mastered the Italian “art of memory” (part of the inner world of Renaissance magic that Mantel drew on in her comic novel “Fludd”), in which long lines of speech are fixed in the mind with vivid images.
Cromwell is also, as Mantel sees him, a closet Protestant, monitoring Luther’s battles with Rome and exchanging secret letters with Tyndale, the English translator of the Bible, about the “brutal truth” of the Scriptures. “Why does the pope have to be in Rome?” Cromwell wonders. “Where is it written?” Historians have long suspected that Cromwell harbored Protestant sympathies, even before Anne Boleyn’s “resistant, quick-breathing and virginal bosom” caught the king’s eye. Mantel, with the novelist’s license, draws the circle more tightly. As a child, Cromwell is present when an old woman is burned at the stake for heresy: “Even after there was nothing left to scream, the fire was stoked.” Years later, he watches in disgust as Thomas More rounds up more heretics to feed to the fire. For Mantel, who acknowledges her debt to revisionist scholars, Henry’s divorce is the impetus for Cromwell’s “Tudor Revolution,” as the historian Geoffrey Elton called it, by which the British state won independence from foreign and ecclesiastic rule.
In “Wolf Hall” it is More, the great imaginer of utopia, who is the ruthless tormenter of English Protestants, using the rack and the ax to set the “quaking world” aright. “Utopia,” Cromwell learns early on, “is not a place one can live.” More’s refusal to recognize Henry’s marriage was the basis for his canonization in 1935, as well as his portrayal as a hero of conscience in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” and its 1966 screen version. To Mantel’s Cromwell, More is in love with his own martyrdom, his own theatrical self-importance, while Cromwell, more in keeping with the spirit of Bolt’s title, seeks a way out for his old rival.
There’s a tense moment when More, locked in the Tower of London awaiting trial for treason, claims to have harmed no one. Cromwell explodes. What about Bainham, a mild man whose only sin was that he was a Protestant? “You forfeited his goods, committed his poor wife to prison, saw him racked with your own eyes, you locked him in Bishop Stokesley’s cellar, you had him back at your own house two days chained upright to a post, you sent him again to Stokesley, saw him beaten and abused for a week, and still your spite was not exhausted: you sent him back to the Tower and had him racked again.” Tortured, Bainham names names, who happen to be friends of Cromwell’s. “That’s how the year goes out, in a puff of smoke, a pall of human ash.”
In her long novel of the French Revolution, “A Place of Greater Safety,” Mantel also wrote about the damage done by utopian fixers. And surely the current uproar over state-sponsored torture had its effect on both the writing and the imagining of “Wolf Hall.” Yet, although Mantel adopts none of the archaic fustian of so many historical novels — the capital letters, the antique turns of phrase — her book feels firmly fixed in the 16th century. Toward the end of the novel, Cromwell, long widowed and as usual overworked, “the man in charge of everything,” falls in love with Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to Boleyn, and considers spending a few days at the gothic-sounding Seymour estate called Wolf Hall. What could go wrong with such an innocent plan? Perhaps in a sequel Mantel will tell us.
Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly. “Wolf Hall” has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike. Trained in the law, Mantel can see the understated heroism in the skilled administrator’s day-to-day decisions in service of a well-ordered civil society — not of a medieval fief based on war and not, heaven help us, a utopia. “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power,” Cromwell reflects. “Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” is both spellbinding and believable.
The devil is in the details
Hilary Mantel's glitzy embellishment of the story of Thomas Cromwell will thrill lovers of costume drama
Published on Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 2:22PM EDT Last updated on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009 3:29AM EDT
The winner of this year's Man Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (titled after the Seymour family seat in England), spans Thomas Cromwell's life from 1500 to 1535, beginning with his South Bank adolescence and ending with his ascendancy as Henry VIII's master secretary. (Mantel won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for her 1989 novel, Fludd, about life in a north of England village, and the Hawthornden Prize for her 1995 novel, An Experiment in Love, about three northern school friends. Wolf Hall is her eighth novel.)
Having arranged the nullification of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon after Rome failed to grant the king's petition, Cromwell oversaw the looting of the monasteries for his master's bottomless purse. A protean creature, “this very able man” (too able perhaps), in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (1960) played the foil to Sir Thomas More's saintly idealist. A new biography, Robert Hutchinson's Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister, portrays him as a shakedown artist animated by greed and power, a Tudor Lavrenti Beria
Mantel's Cromwell is more chief financial officer than secret policeman. “Study the market. Increase the spread of benevolence. Bring in better figures next year,” he avers in Wolf Hall 's thankfully “forsooth”-avoiding style.
Wolf Hall reverses roles traditionally assigned to More and Cromwell. If the historical Cromwell tried to save More from himself and the king, Mantel's More is the manipulator, Cromwell the idealist. A reformer indifferent to More's fate, he must slip the church's yoke, held by the devout More. Yet Mantel's fictional Cromwell can brood, as More awaits execution, “My workings are hidden from myself.”
Much is hidden from history, including Cromwell's birth date. ( Wolf Hall gets around this by having the protagonist himself not know it.) Born around 1485 (the year of the Battle of Bosworth Field), the son of a Putney fuller, young Cromwell knocked about Europe, but there's no evidence that, as in Wolf Hall, he killed a man, or that he read Machiavelli. He knew enough common law to set up as a London attorney, which, with his fluency in Latin, Italian and French, attracted him to Cardinal Wolsey, his first real master. Cool, calculating, witty and assiduous, Cromwell never troubled to hide his humble origins.
It's unlikely that the workings of such a man were hidden from himself, but Wolf Hall is more Grand Guignol than psychodrama: vivid, violent puppetry. It opens with Thomas's father, Walter, beating him senseless. “Blood from the gash on his head … is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father's boot is unravelling …”
The detailing is often yoked with feral imagery. Young Cromwell sees his first martyr, a Lollard woman, ushered to the stake by “two monks, parading like fat grey rats, crosses in their pink paws.” Mantel, who writes with a bodkin dipped in blood, occasionally forces a simile: “How brightly coloured the king is, like the king in a new pack of cards.” (What ace dare trump this king?) If Wolf Hall is artifice, its embroidering usually conveys palpable menace: “Rubies cluster on [the king's] knuckles like bubbles of blood.”
Such mannerism resembles Hans Holbein's portrait of Cromwell, of which Mantel makes much, as she does his relationship with the court painter. The painting shows Cromwell as Master of the Jewel House, a post he occupied for a year from April 12, 1532. Capped, grim, squinting and jowly, he is shown in profile, clutching a rolled piece of ivory-white paper that looks like a Japanese sword hilt. This is a man who killed impersonally with paper, a man, who, as a friend of George Boleyn says, “looked like a murderer.”
An earthy narcissist, analytical yet passionate, Mantel's Cromwell never stops watching others. Thus, the feline Cardinal Wolsey “makes a great, deep, smiling sigh, like a leopard settling in a warm spot.” Anne Boleyn's “body [is] taut like a bowstring, her skin dusted with gold, with tints of apricot and honey; when she smiles, which she does often, she shows small teeth, white and sharp.”
Written in the historical present, Cromwell's third-person stream of consciousness quickly palls, but Wolf Hall 's external details are brilliant, sumptuous or wanton as the occasion demands. Cromwell's psyche is shaded with instrumentalist chiaroscuro. “A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face,” he blusters. “It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”
In the fullness of his power, negotiating with the French ambassador in 1535, Cromwell observes: “The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. … 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.”
Mantel's painterly (or writerly) prose highlights the problem of voice. Would any Henrician courtier sound so portentous? Verbal bonbons, after all, did not make Cromwell, for a time, the second man in the realm.
“The King's great matter” is a story that keeps on telling. If Mantel's glitzy embellishment allows Wolf Hall to wax corpulent, lovers of costume dramas will adore the novel, which concludes with Cromwell's departure for the Seymours' estate, where Jane, the next fatal attraction, has already caught his master's roving eye. Apollo (if not Luther's God) has predetermined a sequel.
Hilary Mantel's next stab at Thomas Cromwell should be briefer. In 1535, he had five years left before a grateful king would separate his head from his body.
Chris Scott is the author of Antichthon, a novel about the life and death of Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, December 6, 2009
By Hilary Mantel
(Henry Holt; 532 pages; $27)
"He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair ... 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'll never make. ... [H]is 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. ... Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit."
What is more, he loves his wife. That's Thomas Cromwell, in his 40s.
You say you don't care a fig about 16th century history? Think yourself immune to vicious Tudor Court intrigue? Think again. Hilary Mantel's magnificent Booker Prize-winning novel reads the way a great film races - a breathtaking, brainy, sexy, political thriller.
The uninitiated can brief themselves about Mantel, a Briton, from "Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints," Joan Acocella's indispensable essay collection. Mantel suffered a strange childhood (her father silently ceded his family position to an outsider) and near-incapacitating illness in young adulthood, when she began writing. Her prior, often intensely dark novels may seem, in retrospect, training for this masterwork. But while "Wolf Hall" conveys heinous period realities - plague, slaughter, machinations - in Mantel's trademark gelid style, it is also tender. It owns - complicatedly - a moral heart.
Cromwell's thinking, tracked as if by a camcorder fastened inside his skull, is mesmerizing from the novel's opening pages, when as a boy he is so routinely and savagely beaten by his father that he must finally leave town. Adventures pile up - 27 years' worth, in seamless, eliding summaries that feel like effortless speed trains - and Cromwell's self-taught skills make him a prosperous, respected family man, trader, ombudsman and faithful adviser to the powerful, shrewd and bafflingly likable Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who's well pleased with his loyal second: "He makes a great, deep, smiling sigh, like a leopard settling in a warm spot.") When Wolsey dies, Cromwell becomes the king's point man.
Plot summary, for a 560-page novel that offers at its outset two charts of family trees and five pages of character names, proves a bit impractical. The opening gun fires when King Henry VIII (vain, moody, impetuous) wants the pope to annul his 20-year marriage to (large, willful) Katherine of Aragon so he can marry (glacial, ruthless) Anne Boleyn - for whom he lusts, and from whom he hopes to get a son and lawful heir. A bitter deadlock ensues, with England held hostage. Cromwell steps into the breach.
Dialogue sings and crackles, in language that is at once lyrical, decorous and slangily modern ("Call in some favors," Cromwell suggests). That modernness may constitute a fudging of sorts, but may as defensibly be a translation across time, waking readers to depths of character in fresh, yet recognizable ways. ("Spooky resonances," one blurber notes.) I went online to view the famous Hans Holbein portraits of Thomas More (Cromwell's doomed nemesis), and Cromwell himself: "a man of strong build, not tall," whose face expresses "stifled amusement." What drove him? Wry ambition. The zest of the game. But also, movingly, an ideal of a fairly governed, strong, wealthy nation. The reality was more like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
His survival owes strictly to acuity: "You don't get on by being original. You don't get on by being bright. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook." Yet Mantel convincingly styles Cromwell as a kind of multidimensional Rahm Emanuel, a hard, cunning protector and procurer who also adores his children, cares for the commoner, adopts strays - wicked only in wit.
"The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it's so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for 'Back off, our prince is f- this man's daughter.' " His brilliant company, and the life-size pageant of his world, give such sustained pleasure that we are greedy for particulars of a story whose outcome, in theory, we already know.
Best of all, Mantel's indicated that a sequel's in the works. I can't wait.
Joan Frank's new story collection, "In Envy Country," will be published in January.