No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

#37: Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

Beyond and beneath this whole realm of England ... there is another landscape: there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and the boggarts who live in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future. (p.575)

Set between 1527 and 1535, Wolf Hall is the first of two novels focussing on Thomas Cromwell, Secretary of State to Henry VIII, friend of Cardinal Wolsey, kingmaker ("the blacksmith makes his own tools") and statesman. It's a departure from Mantel's usual dark, slightly uncanny material: yet many of the same ingredients are present, above all her marvellous knack of making strange what should be commonplace.

Cromwell -- almost always simply 'he', in prose: it's tight third-person, present-tense point of view, though occasionally there's a complicit 'we' -- is a paradoxically likeable character. In the first chapter, he leaves behind Putney and his base beginnings: by the second chapter, a quarter of a century later, he's advisor and factotum to Cardinal Wolsey. For Thomas Cromwell is a singular man, a social chameleon possessed of an extraordinary memory for detail, a frightful reputation (which he maintains by a serene refusal to talk about his past), and prodigous energy. He is ruthless, private, wealthy through his own efforts. He is an intensely private man living his life on the public stage.

It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. 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. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires. (p.359)

Cromwell's privacy extends to his own internal narrative: he's not given to reflecting upon his emotions. His grief at the death of his wife and daughters in an outbreak of the plague is vivid and honest: his subsequent affair with his dead wife's sister is scarcely hinted until he realises that there are rumours, and that he must give her up. It would be commonplace for such a character to seem cold, withdrawn, bloodless: that Cromwell is so sympathetic is a triumph.

Wolsey, who is more like a father than Cromwell's own abusive parent, values Cromwell: Henry says "You were born to understand me." Cromwell's ambition does not encompass Henry, but Henry's unborn son: "I can build my own prince" (p. 467). A blacksmith makes his own tools. Consummate statesman, Cromwell never lets his feelings show in matters of state, even while he's exasperatedly thinking that it is a characteristic of Henry, to run before you to where you were not quite going. (p. 532) He is loyal to those he serves, refusing to abandon Wolsey after the cardinal's fall: he is fiercely protective of those he thinks of as 'his folk', and determined to do right by them in this uncertain world.

He's also given to a wry black humour, more Mantel than anything else in the novel:
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 fucking this man's daughter.' He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on. (p. 76)

Mantel's prose is neither stilted nor pretentious: it's certainly not authentic 16th-century colloquial English, but there's a definite sense of the late medieval. 'Never caught on,' in the passage above, sits comfortably with similitudes that evoke the period: "as miserable as dawn on Ash Wednesday" (p. 79).

There's plenty of historical detail in here: I'm not very familiar with this period, but I recognise some of the allusions and names, though suspect I'm missing the majority. Anne's devoted lutenist Mark Smeaton exasperates Cromwell: I know (from Donizetti's Anna Bolena) that he'll come to an unpleasant end. Cromwell is fascinated by Guido Camillo and his Theatre of Memory, though in Cromwell's mind there's more to Camillo than a method for memorising detail: It is likely ... that we shall never know what his invention really was. A printing press that can write its own books? A mind that can think about itself? (p. 647) Hans Holbein's portraits are part of the wallpaper of English life: "Easy majesty would be called for," he [Cromwell] says.
Hans beams. "I can do it by the yard." (p. 603)

There are other aspects of the novel that give a strong sense of time and place: an undercurrent of the Matter of Britain, the medieval myth of Old England, all the ways in which English life -- country life -- has continued unchanged for hundreds of years. A sense of history, too: revolt and bloodshed in the recent past (the Cornish uprising) and martyrs, executions, heresy. Cromwell is a man of reason and rationality, yet he's aware of the dark and bloody history behind the Tudors, and it colours his fancies:
He closes his eyes. Ladies move behind his lids: transparent like little lizards, lashing their tails. The serpent queens of England, black-fanged and haughty, dragging their blood-soaked linen and their crackling skirts. They kill and eat their own children: this is well-known. They suck their marrow before they are even born.(p.612)

I'm still thinking about the title. The eponymous Wolf Hall is the Wiltshire seat of John Seymour, father of Jane (who appears a third of the way through the novel as one of Anne Boleyn's ladies). Wolf Hall, in Cromwell's mind, comes to stand for incest and fornication: Seymour has an affair with his daughter-in-law, throwing the family into disrepute. "They could tell Boccaccio a tale, those sinners at Wolf Hall", says Anne Boleyn to Cromwell, laughing. I wonder if Wolf Hall is a metaphor for the complex and impulse-driven behaviour of Henry towards women -- perhaps towards England.

History tells me what happens next: I trust Hilary Mantel to evoke something of how it might have felt to live through that, a singular and solitary man: the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell. (p. 568)


  1. Thanks. I just got this and can't wait to get started. It gives me hope that you say you weren't that familiar with the time period! I have to say I'm a little intimidated but all the great reviews are going to encourage me!

  2. Anonymous4:27 pm

    I am almost finished and I hope you are right that there will be a sequel. I feel like am living in England in the early 1500's while I read this and I am fascinated. I love the way Mantel writes and will look at her other books. Thomas Cromwell seems to have been a very good man even though a total politician. I am having fun reading this with my computer close by to look up various people such as Guido Camillo.

  3. A good read, I am almost through it. I do find the almost stream of conciousness jumps a bit unwieldy. Nice review ma'mselle

  4. Now here is a review worthy of the book. I read "Wolf Hall" because I like historical novels (you learn something while being entertained), but was pleasantly surprised by the wit, intelligence, humour & lyricism which shines through. Like Turner, I at first found the style a little difficult in parts, but it was heaps worthwhile persisting. I will now be looking for other Mantel books, and can't wait to get my hands on a sequel. Thanks Tamaranth, I look forward to your beautiful reviews on other books.