I had to see what all the fuss was about. So I downloaded Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to my Kindle. In retrospect, this seems like the sort of book that one ought to read in three dimensions. Perhaps being able to hold it, physically, in my hands would have produced a different effect. As it is, I found it strangely insubstantial. And yet… there’s a lot to like.
Perusing the reviews on Goodreads, one becomes aware of a deep abyss separating those who gave up after twenty pages from those who devoured it with relish. This is mostly because Mantel confronts the reader with what seems at first to be an irritating and bewildering stylistic affectation. She refuses to use “Cromwell” as the subject of a sentence, because we are supposed to be inside Cromwell’s head, and he didn’t think of himself as “Cromwell.” (Actually, I’m not sure he thought of himself as “he” either). This seems fine in theory, but Mantel is not able to apply it adroitly enough to prevent confusion. At first, I was constantly wondering “Is this Cardinal Wolsey? Or Thomas? Or one of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of other Thomases?”
Finally my mother, who was also reading the book, pointed out the solution. Whenever Mantel writes “he” with no further explanation, she means Cromwell. This works relatively well, but there are occasional bits where you’re still not sure who is who. By the middle of the book, Mantel is regularly writing “He, Cromwell…”
As historical novels go, Wolf Hall is an audacious experiment because there is so little exposition, so little description. Cromwell knows what’s going on. The reader has to pick it up from him (or possess the requisite historical knowledge to make sense of it all). On the other hand, the flow of individual events in Thomas’ life is easy to follow. The prose is simple, deft, and often lyrical. The diction is modern, as the late, great Christopher Hitchens noted, and Mantel does not shrink from using expressions like “cost it out,” “cut a deal” and “payoff.” One can comprehend the book at different levels. The beginner level: Thomas’ personal life, his successes, failures and worries. The intermediate level: the intrigues of Henry VIII’s court. The advanced level: how Thomas Cromwell changed the world.
In this respect, Mantel is a less demanding author than Dorothy Dunnett, whose intricately detailed Lymond Chronicles (also set in the sixteenth century) suffer no fools. Unless you know your history, literature, and two or three European languages, her work will fly over your head at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. On the other hand, after you finish a Dunnett book, you feel as though you’ve consumed a holiday feast (and then virtuously run the five meals to burn it off). Mantel’s book is more insubstantial–like a dish of meringue with an elusive flavor you can’t quite identify. It’s not as satisfying as the feast, but more memorable as an evocation of one extraordinary man’s interior life. Dunnett’s books are “exterior.” They keep you guessing about what’s going on in the heads of the protagonists.
One of the comments that most fascinated me on Goodreads was this: More than anything else Wolf Hall seemed to me to be a literary experiment – on how closely a woman can get into a man’s mind, and as far as I am concerned, a qualified failure. I could never truly feel that the narration was being executed by a male voice…
I’m not a man, so I can’t judge whether this is the case, but I can attest to the difficulty of trying to write from the perspective of another gender. And Thomas Cromwell does seem to be oddly disembodied from his own physicality. We learn that he is a seasoned veteran of many a battle, a scrappy brawler as a lad, the kind of youth who grabs a wayward companion and ducks his head in a fountain for the fun of it. He has a normal libido, it would seem, when he’s not preoccupied with money and power (he feels a certain yen for the delicate Jane Seymour, who hails from Wolf Hall in Wiltshire). But all of this comes to us indirectly through stray thoughts. It’s highly filtered, as though someone has cut the visceral connection between Thomas’ brain and his nether bits. The same odd disconnect exists between Thomas’ inner thoughts and his conscience. He doesn’t waste much time reflecting on whether his actions are right or wrong. He’s too busy doing his job.
Traditionally, Thomas Cromwell has been painted as an unprincipled man who would take any steps necessary to expand the power of the selfish narcissist Henry VIII (and thereby, his own). When Henry desired to cast off his wife Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn (depicted in Wolf Hall as a scheming, heartless bitch), Cromwell was the architect of the legal strategy that ended in England’s break from the Catholic church. But later, when Henry tired of Anne, Cromwell turned against her and conspired in her downfall and execution. Thomas More, on the other hand was canonized by the Catholic church for his principled rejection of Henry’s antics. He was a loyal Catholic who believed that Henry could not remake God’s laws in order to serve his own desires and wishes. For this, he gave up his life.
Mantel’s project is to revise our views of Cromwell and More. She depicts More as a haughty, heartless man who relentlessly pursued, tortured and burned heretics (and so he was). Unlike Cromwell, who rose from the gutters of Putney, More was born to privilege and his potential was recognized early. Mantel juxtaposes the young More as an exalted page in the Lord Chancellor’s house with the boy Cromwell, who hangs about the door waiting for leavings from the kitchen.
More was the kind of man who wore a hair-shirt under his clothes but had smooth white hands, while Cromwell, scarred from years of blacksmithing and battle, saw no need to inflict more physical pain on himself. Cromwell, we learn, was a different kind of Renaissance Man, one who could turn his hand to any occupation and make a success of it. He could have been a model for Dorothy Dunnet’s fictional Nicholas de Fleury:
It soon becomes apparent that [the lowborn de Fleury] is a polymath and polyglot, and is turning himself into a leader of men and player of great games. He loves creating and solving puzzles of all kinds, he is highly numerate, and applies himself to learning whatever he can (languages, engineering, warcraft, courtly manners, philosophy), both for practical purposes and for the sake of learning. From apprentice, he rises to merchant, banker, master of warcraft, and adviser to kings.
Thomas likewise is a lover of chess, multilingual, and possessed of a prodigious memory.
He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
Mantel makes Cromwell a recognizably modern man, and therefore a sympathetic character. We share his disgust at More’s cruel burning of heretics, and we understand why he secretly helps William Tyndale, who risked his life to translate the Bible into English. Today it shocks us to think that a man could be burned at the stake for such a “crime,” but the saintly More would gladly have burned a hundred Tyndales. Cromwell, however, was an equally ruthless man. Mantel describes (yet subtly obscures) actions by Cromwell that seem almost equally repellent, like the law that made virtually any criticism of the sovereign a treasonous offense (punishable by the ultimate torture of drawing and quartering). There were limits to Cromwell’s modernity.
In the upcoming TV series, Thomas Cromwell is to be played by Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, a brilliant choice for the role. Rylance will have no trouble making Cromwell sympathetic, but will he draw the darker side of Cromwell’s character for us? Or will Saint Thomas Cromwell replace Saint Thomas More?