By Hilary Mantel
Near the beginning of Hilary Mantel’s spectacular new novel Wolf Hall, there’s a tense and funny scene in which Sir Thomas Boleyn, self-interested king’s flunky whose daughter Mary has caught the royal eye and whose daughter Anne will soon ensnare the royal heart, is warning Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s chief adviser and most powerful servant, that the king’s growing fascination with Anne may be stymied by her pledge of marriage to Harry Percy, the son of a rich northern earl. This is a delicate matter, since Sir Thomas is hoping the Cardinal will arrange a prosperous marriage for Mary, but doesn’t see how he can keep Anne from her promise. When he tells the Cardinal this (with Cromwell, Wolsey’s servant, listening nearby), Mantel uses the exchange that follows to sharply delineate the savage court arena in which her book is set:
The cardinal smashes his fist on the table. “I’ll tell you how. I shall get his father down from the borders, and if the prodigal defies him, he will be tossed out of his heirdom on his prodigal snout. The earl has other sons, and better. And if you don’t want that Butler marriage called off, and your lady daughter shriveling unmarriageable down in Sussex and costing you bed and board for the rest of her life, you will forget any talk of pledges and witnesses – who are they, these witnesses? I know those kinds of witnesses who never show their faces when I send for them. So never let me hear it. Pledges. Witnesses. Contracts. God in Heaven!”
Sir Thomas has two spots of angry red on his cheekbones. He says, “Finished, my lord cardinal?”
Boleyn turns, in a sweep of dark silks. Are those tears of temper in his eyes? The light is dim, but he, Cromwell, is of very strong sight. “Oh, a moment, Sir Thomas …” the cardinal says. His voice loops across the room and pulls his victim back. “Now, Sir Thomas, remember your ancestry. The Percy family comprise, I do think, the noblest in the land. Whereas, notwithstanding your remarkable good fortune in marrying a Howard, the Boleyns were in trade once, were they not? A person of your name was Lord Mayor of London, not so? Or have I mixed up your line with some Boleyns more distinguished?”
Sir Thomas’s face has drained; the scarlet spots have vanished from his cheeks, and he is almost fainting with rage. As he quits the room, he whispers, “Butcher’s boy.” And as he passes the clerk – whose beefy hand lies idly on his desk – he sneers, “Butcher’s dog.”
The scene shows several aspects of Mantel’s astonishing virtuosity (here on far greater display than in any of her already-accomplished previous novels). We get the pitch-perfect bold dialogue, the modernized sensitivities to things like power and faith, the reflexive contempt better-born characters in book feel toward jumped-up “new men” like Wolsey or his dog Thomas Cromwell (it’s one of Wolf Hall’s most persistent refrains, just a hair short of tiresomely so), the easy mastery of dramatic tension … in fact, there’s only one detail that doesn’t ring quite true: Thomas Cromwell’s hands were surely never idle.
He was a man on the make, an obscurely-born poor boy from Putney who rose to royal service purely by the dint of his own wits and exertions. He entered Wolsey’s service when the Cardinal’s influence over young King Henry VIII was unrivalled, and who knows how much he learned from that wily master of court intrigue? When Wolsey’s failure to secure Henry’s divorce from Queen Katherine insured his fall, Cromwell, his devoted servant, managed to distance himself from that fall and stay close to power. He became a close counselor of the king in the early 1530’s and pushed forward (and in some cases crafted) the laws that would give Henry supreme religious authority in England – and give him control over the vast riches of the Church he now ruled. Throughout the 1530’s Cromwell was Henry’s most formidable emissary, and that fact earned him more than his share of enemies who were often openly eager for his downfall.
Those enemies were also eager to blacken his reputation, despite the remarkable – and remarkably favorable – portrait of him we have in the biography of Wolsey written by another of his devoted servants, George Cavendish, who lavishes praise on Cromwell at every turn:
… at length, for his honest behaviour in his master’s case, he grew into such estimation in every man’s opinion, that he was esteemed to be the most faithfullest servant to his majesty of all other, wherein he was of all men greatly commended.
Some modern historians agree (A. G. Pickens lauds his careful nature, writing “He was ever the tidy-minded administrator, highly responsible, anxious to tame the future, determined to leave nothing to chance”), but the prevailing view of Cromwell in the vast sea of Tudor fiction written prior to Mantel’s book has at the very least fallen into line with that put forward in Hilda Lewis’ wonderful 1971 novel I Am Mary Tudor: “Cromwell pressing; pressing, seeking at one and the same time to strengthen the King and to advance himself. Cromwell pursuing his own downfall.”
Kneejerk morality insists that ambition have just such a downfall, and most historical fiction insists that the downfall be richly deserved. The schoolmaster mindframe will have Cromwell’s imprisonment and execution in 1540 be only just desserts (Henry turned on him ruthlessly when the marriage he orchestrated – with Anne of Cleves – unraveled as the diplomatic coup it was supposed to be), but Mantel swerves well clear of such easy answers in Wolf Hall, which is certainly the most entertaining joyless book I’ve read all year. For starters, she breaks with the great majority of Tudor novels before her by fully agreeing with George Cavendish – however unwilling he was to share Wolsey’s fate, this Cromwell loved his master:
So day by day, at his request and to amuse him, he would put a value on his master. Now the king has sent an army of clerks to do it. But he would like to take away their pens by force and write across their inventories: Thomas Wolsey is a man beyond price.
(You notice here the book’s main stylistic tic: that ‘he.’ The narrative unfolds in a very close third person singular, so we are grappled to Cromwell with hoops of steel and Mantel often needs to clarify which ‘he’ she’s talking about; you get used to it remarkably quickly, and it definitely serves its dramatic purpose. We’re close enough to Cromwell to feel his panic, or take his knife between our ribs.)
This is a far cry from the villain other writers (myself included) have made of this man. Hilaire Belloc has it this way:
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein, 1532
Mantel takes us inside that “reign of terror,” but her man is as horrified as we are by some of the end results of the measures he takes. Her Cromwell is a harsh, hard man, yes, but he has a caring heart and is in his own way as mystified and revolted by the burning of Lollard heretics, despite the bloodthirsty urgings of an old lady in the crowd next to him:
In the smoke the Loller was screaming. Now she calls on the saints! they said. The woman bent down and said in his ear, do you know that in the fire they bleed? Some people think they just shrivel up, but I’ve seen it before and I know.
By the time the smoke cleared and they could see again, the old woman was well ablaze. The crowd began cheering. They had said it would not take long but it did take long, or so it seemed to him, before the screaming stopped. Does nobody pray for her, he said, and the woman said, what’s the point? Even after there was nothing left to scream, the fire was stoked. The officers trod around the margins, stamping out any wisps of straw that flew off, kicking back anything bigger.
The stark violence of this scene is a bracing, invigorating thread running throughout Wolf Hall (adumbrated by the book’s very title, Wolf Hall being a home of the Seymour family, the men of which hated Cromwell for the power he wielded and would eventually connive at his downfall), and it extends to everybody, even that most virtuous figure, Queen Katherine:
There is another story about Katherine, a different story. Henry went to France to have a little war; he left Katherine as regent. Down came the Scots; they were well beaten, and at Flodden the head of their king cut off. It was Katherine, that pink-and-white angel, who proposed to send the head in a bag by the first crossing, to cheer up her husband in his camp. They dissuaded her; told her it was, as a gesture, un-English. She sent, instead, a letter. And with it, the surcoat in which the Scottish king had died, which was stiffened, black and crackling with his pumped-out blood.
Katherine is also given lots of great lines later on, when she’s stewing in country houses, defiantly calling herself Henry’s queen even though he’s crowned Anne Boleyn and declared his daughter Mary a bastard. These are things the real Katherine wasn’t clever enough by half to say, but that’s one of the illicit pleasures of really good historical fiction:
“Master Cromwell, you may assure the king I will not bring an army against him. Tell him I pray for him daily. Some people, who do not know him as I do, they say, ‘Oh, he will work his will, he will have his desire at any price.’ But I know that he needs to be on the side of the light. He is not a man like you, who just packs up his sins in his saddlebags and carries them from country to country, and when they grow too heavy whistles up a mule or two, and soon commands a train of them and a troop of muleteers. Henry may err, but he needs to be forgiven.”
Henry himself is one of Wolf Hall’s only disappointments, and that may have been inevitable. In Tudor fiction – as in Tudor reality, one suspects – Henry tends to come across as melodramatically one-dimensional, with only flashing glimpses of underlying complexity. He has dreams that frighten and inform him, and he promptly tells that to everybody; he finds cruel things funny and doesn’t care who they hurt; and in perhaps a few too many scenes, he rants like a canny ranter, as in this interview with Cromwell about the practicality of a fighting prince:
“You said I was not to lead my troops. You said if I was taken, the country couldn’t put up the ransom. So what do you want? You want a king who doesn’t fight? You want me to huddle indoors like a sick girl?”
“That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes.”
The king takes a deep ragged breath. He’s been shouting. Now – and it’s a narrow thing – he decides to laugh. “You advocate prudence. Prudence is a virtue. But there are other virtues that belong to princes.”
“Yes. Cost that out.”
“It doesn’t mean courage in battle.”
“Do you read me a lesson?”
“It means fixity of purpose. It means endurance. It means having the strength to live with what constrains you.”
Henry crosses the room. Stamp, stamp, stamp in his riding boots; he is ready for la chasse. He turns, rather slowly, to show his majesty to better effect: wide and square and bright. “We will pursue this. What constrains me?”
That ‘stamp, stamp, stamp’ is lethal to believability – it smacks of Charles Laughton, as the Henry who’s the last to realize he’s been shouting at his advisors and changes his moods for theatrical rather than personal reasons smacks of every two-bit tyrant in the Hitler catalog. The lure is always there for writers ofTudor fiction to treat the Tudors as vaguely inhuman – certainly they’re nudged toward this tendency by this particular Tudor monarch (and his daughter Elizabeth – in the whole family, only his daughter Mary acts with completely recognizable humanity, and she’s been despised for it these five hundred years), but that would have made Mantel’s resistance all the more satisfying. Alas, it’s not to be found in Wolf Hall, where Henry stamps and shouts and glistens in the sun but very seldom thinks, reflects, or exhibits much ordinary sanity. The flatness of the portrait is rather ham-handedly designed to enhance the subtlety of our hero, where a greater parity of complexity would have served the purpose better. Its richer portrayal of Henry is the only superiority of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl to this novel, the financial success of which Wolf Hall nevertheless deserves to surpass.)
But such comparatively easy constructions are both rarely used and expertly executed in Wolf Hall, and its most reliably beguiling trick is one no Tudor fictionalizer since Shakespeare has done so well as Mantel – the trick of watching Cromwell constantly watching himself, analyzing everything he thinks and does, suspecting everything he feels (except the love he feels for his family, which is depicted with unabashed sympathy). This is the Cromwell we see in the famous Holbein study, a tense man squinting in constant, even involuntary scrutiny of everything, even himself. In a talk with a more timid counselor, Cromwell pauses to consider himself by comparison, and the passage not only displays Mantel’s new and at times breathtaking poetry of expression (“the stone-eyed gaze of other people’s saints” alone is worth a Mass), it also shows us this scrutiny first-hand – when Cromwell says “you planned for what your journeys would bring you,” we hear the defiance of the inveterate micro-manager, the come-from-nowhere man who will have the beautiful things of the world even though he was born in river mud:
He thinks, if you were born in Putney, you saw the river every day, and imagined it widening out to the sea. Even if you had never seen the ocean you had a picture of it in your head from what you had been told by foreign people who sometimes came upriver. You knew that one day you would go out into a world of marble pavements and peacocks, of hillsides buzzing with heat, the fragrance of crushed herbs rising around you as you walked. You planned for what your journeys would bring you: the touch of warm terra-cotta, the night sky of another climate, alien flowers, the stone-eyed gaze of other people’s saints. But if you were born in Aslockton, in flat fields under a wide sky, you might just be able to imagine Cambridge, no farther.
Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and will now come before a much larger audience than any of her previous novels. Such a coronation comes too late for my “Year with the Tudors” feature in 2008’s Open Letters, but coronations often go awry. The crown’s the important thing: Wolf Hall is indisputably the single best Tudor historical novel ever written. Buy a copy for yourself, and give a copy to everybody you know who loves reading.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.