Hilary Mantel has burst onto my bookshelves and claimed a spot as my new favorite author. I purchased Wolf Hall last year from amazon.uk. It spent a few months on my nightstand – six hundred and fifty pages is a large time commitment and I usually save the heftier tomes for vacations. But Vacant Possession hooked me. Fortunately Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel is divided into six parts, which allows it to be broken down into manageable chunks.
Wolf Hall is set in the court of Henry VIII, at that pivotal moment in English history when Henry is attempting to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in order to make Anne Boleyn his queen. The reader is an observer to the politics and machinations involved in the pleasing of a King. That, in and of itself, would be fascinating. But what makes Wolf Hall successful and different, is Mantel’s decision to have her narrative follow Thomas Cromwell. It is in many ways an obvious choice – he was the Cardinal Wolsey’s man, and as such would be privy to intimate details of the negotiations with Rome for the King’s annulment. But he also hedged his bets. He met with Henry on several occasions as Wolsey’s representative and performed services (such as arranging loans) for the powerful nobles closest to the King. Thomas Cromwell was the 16th century equivalent of a fixer. There were very few pies baked in England that he didn’t have a finger in.
From violent and coarse beginnings Cromwell rises to the highest circles of power and influence. That is not new information, nor is it what makes him appealing as a main character. As usual, it is the personal details that draw the reader in. He has a murky past as banker, soldier, cloth merchant and other connections only hinted at. There is his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey – one which is based on mutual trust, loyalty and true friendship. Cromwell’s love for his wife, family (and extended household) is also apparent, and even more compelling because of the practicality with which he tempers his emotion and affection.
Wykys stumped away after he showed him the figures. ‘Lizzie?’ he yelled. ‘Lizzie? Come downstairs.’
She came down.
‘You want a new husband. Will he do?’
She stood and looked him up and down. ‘Well, Father. You didn’t pick him for his looks.’ To him, her eyebrows raised, she said, ‘Do you want a wife?’
‘Should I leave you to talk it over?’ old Wykys said. He seemed baffled: seemed to think they should sit down and write a contract there and then.
Almost, they did. Lizzie wanted children; he wanted a wife with city contacts and some money behind her. They were married in weeks. Gregory arrived within the year. Bawling, strong, one hour old, plucked from the cradle: he kissed the infant’s fluffy skull and said, I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me. For what’s the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?
This is a stark contrast to the romantic melodrama being played out by Katherine, Henry and Anne. Yet, Cromwell’s feelings appear all the more genuine because of the simplicity of Mantel’s portrayal. The opening passages of the chapter Make or Mar. All Hallow’s 1529 poignantly reveal a man grieving the deaths of his loved ones to sweating sickness. A man whose actions and emotions read as wholly appropriate to a period of history in which there were constant reminders of human mortality.
Halloween: the world’s edge seeps and bleeds. This is the time when the tally-keepers of Purgatory, its clerks and gaolers, listen in to the living, who are praying for the dead.
At this time of year, with their parish, he and Liz would keep vigil. They would pray for Henry Wykys, her father; for Liz’s dead husband, Thomas Williams; for Walter Cromwell, and for distant cousins; for half-forgotten names, long-dead half-sisters and lost step-children.
Last night he kept vigil alone. He lay awake, wishing Liz back; waiting for her to come and lie beside him. It’s true he is at Esher with the cardinal, not at home at the Austin Friars. But, he though, she’ll know how to find me. She’ll look for the cardinal, drawn through the space between worlds by incense and candlelight. Wherever the cardinal is, I will be.
At some point he must have slept. When daylight came, the room felt so empty it was empty even of him.
One of the greatest pleasures of Wolf Hall is witnessing how Hilary Mantel has chosen to distill her historical research into a novel. It is never overt. There are no long explanations of wars, the historical climate or societal norms of the day. She assumes a certain level of knowledge. The novel is suffused with historical detail, but never does the author lower herself to pointing these details out. They are just there. As a reader you are expected to keep up or be left behind.
Parts 1 thru 3 of Wolf Hall chronicle Thomas Cromwell’s move to position himself advantageously in Henry VIII’s court and parliament, while still maintaining his loyalty to the out-of-favor Cardinal Wolsey. We watch him scrabble up the class ladder to wealth and power, a journey made all the more compelling because the man who is making it appears to be neither attractive or extraordinary. In many ways, his is the original Horatio Alger story. Hilary Mantel succeeds in giving the reader the precise and unclouded world view of a man who (to paraphrase Tolkien) did not choose his time, or even his circumstances, but chose what to make of the time and circumstances that were given him.
Publisher: Fourth Estate, London (2009)
ISBN: 978 0 00 723018 7