Hilary Mantel’s first in her planned trilogy of Tudor historical novels, Wolf Hall, is a reading challenge and a literary masterpiece. The reader has to tune in to the use of the historic present tense and to become used to identifying ‘he’ as Thomas Cromwell; for a few short years the most powerful man in England after the king. The effort will be repaid many times over.
Wolf Hall, like William Shakespeare’s history plays, is destined to become, along with it’s two companion volumes, an accepted and highly respected literary interpretation of that period of Tudor court life when Henry VIII divorced Katherine, beheaded Anne and married Jane who would give him a son before she died. Many others died, including the man who was Henry’s loyal adviser and fixer, Thomas Cromwell. I feel I can make this confident claim for Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies and the still to come The Mirror & the Light. Without doubt, rights for stage and television versions of volume three are being negotiated. It might well win Hilary Mantel a third Man Booker prize; it is almost bound to be short-listed. If I am so full of praise for this trilogy, I had better make a good case for Wolf Hall in this review. Where to start?
Wolf Hall recounts the events over the period from around 1527 to 1533 when the king had fallen out of love with Katherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder brother, whom he could hardly wait to marry when Arthur, Prince of Wales, died unexpectedly. He had had to obtain dispensations from the Church to allow him to marry his brother’s widow and, as was the custom of the time, had to buy his way to these permissions. The Vatican was not above tailoring it’s interpetation of God’s will in return for money. Some Catholic believers had more scruples, such as Thomas More, for a while Henry’s Lord Chancellor, who held the orthodox view that all law derived from God and that rules could not be set aside for anyone’s convenience, however eminent. Many readers will recall his noble and principled portrayal by Paul Schofield in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons and the verbal jousts with Leo McKern playing Cromwell. We are shown a very different More in Wolf Hall. The verbal interplay between the two men is even better but More’s religious zeal is seen in a darker light while Cromwell’s pragmatism and persistence in the service of his monarch comes over well. The dialogue throughout the novel is a delight, a land of milk and honey for lovers of language as antagonists knock spots off each other. There is a treasure trove of different languages, showing off Cromwell as a polyglot as well as a polymath.
Some readers find initial difficulty with Mantel’s use of the historic present tense but this adds such urgency and immediacy to the narrative that I think it is the perfect choice. Others find themselves confused, wondering who ‘he’ is throughout the book. Almost invariably it is Cromwell as the story unfolds from his perspective. This is Mantel’s take on Cromwell’s point of view. He comes over as a loving family man who suffers grievous blows from the loss of his wife and his daughters from the sicknesses for which there was then no cure. He comes over as a tolerant Christian who wants Englishmen and women to read the Bible in their own language and not have Latin-speaking priests as their intermediary. But above all he is a Tudor realist: this is the way it is, this is the way things get done in the 16th century. When Queen Katherine comments on the fine being levied on all clergymen for ‘usurping [Henry’s] jurisdiction as ruler of England.’ Cromwell responds:
‘Not a fine. We call it a benevolence.’
The exchanges between Cromwell and More show two men, from completely different backgrounds, both at the top of their game and both, despite almost diametrically opposed points of view, able to debate with a wry sense of humour. They are well matched but, seen from the narrative’s point of view, Cromwell is the more humane and More is the uncomproming hunter down of heretics, willing (even eager) to use torture.
The word is that the Lord Chancellor has become a master in the twin arts of stretching and compressing the servants of God. When heretics are taken, he stands by at the Tower while the torture is applied. It is reported that in his gatehouse at Chelsea he keeps suspects in the stocks, while he preaches at them and harries them; the name of your printer, the name of the master of the ship that brought these books into England. They say he uses the whip, the manacles and the torture-frame they call Skeffington’s Daughter. It is a portable device, into which a man is folded, knees to chest, with a hoop of iron across his back; by means of a screw, the hoop is tightened until his ribs crack. It takes art to make sure the man does not suffocate: for if he does, everything he knows is lost.
By contrast, when challenged by one of his own staff that he strings men up in manacles too, Cromwell says that he only threatens that, but it seems his threats are seen as credible.
The weather of the period seems to match the mood of the events of the novel as reflected in Mantel’s description of Cromwell’s early spring journey to see the infant Princess Elizabeth and her step-sister living at Hatfield House; with it’s perfect final metaphor.
He had not wanted to leave London during such a busy Parliament, but the king persuaded him: two days and you can be back, I want your eye on things. The route out of the city was running with thaw water, and in copses shielded from the sun the standing pools were still iced. A weak sun blinked at them as they crossed into Hertfordshire, and here and there a ragged blackthorn blossomed, waving at him a petition against the length of the winter.
Scattered through the book are passing references to Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymours. Jane, daughter of Sir John, is a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. One has the impression that widower Thomas Cromwell has a very soft spot for her. Whether that is so or not, we do not learn in this novel but, as it draws to a close, the king’s summer progress is being planned and we learn it will spend time there.
He writes it down.
Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.
And that is where the next novel, Bring up the Bodies will begin. Do read both now and book to see the RSC’s wonderful adaptations at Stratford-upon-Avon, playing to capacity houses and with an almost certain transfer to London. You can also look out for the television adaptations from the BBC. What a feast!