Wolf Hall: Parts 1-3 by Hilary Mantel

"...And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom."

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.

United Kingdom

Publisher:  Fourth Estate, London (2009)
ISBN:  978 0 00 723018 7

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Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel (plot spoilers)

Vacant Possession is a sequel.  Let’s start there.  It takes place ten years after the events of Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, and follows the lives of the characters introduced in the first book.  I was unaware of this until I’d finished Vacant Possession.  Nowhere on my copy does it state that the book is a sequel.  In fact, the only reference was under the author’s name.  A small line that reads:  Author of Every Day Is Mother’s Day.  I wasn’t happy to come upon that glaring omission, but it does pose an interesting experiment.  Can you enjoy a sequel when read out of order?

I didn’t initially feel as if I’d missed anything by starting in the middle of the story as it were.  Vacant Possession contains an ensemble cast of characters and Mantel does a good job of filling in a rough outline of the details from the previous book.  (Such a good job that *ahem* the reader might not even realize a prior book existed).  The story’s protagonist is Muriel Axon.  We meet her after her release from a mental hospital where she’s spent the last 10 years for murdering her mother (who arguably should have been locked away herself – which seems to have been the gist of Every Day is Mother’s Day).  Institutional life agreed with Muriel, who believes herself to be a changeling – the child of a faerie left behind to replace a stolen human child.  Muriel is described as mentally handicapped with problems relating to others, and so she learns to be “human” by taking on the personalities of those around her.  The motivation for all her actions is revenge on the small group of people she holds responsible for her mother’s death, for taking her house and for the loss of her child.  Based on her strange logic she has developed a plan that she believes will bring back her mother, restore her family home and her dead child to her.  The details of Muriel’s plan remain fuzzy throughout the book.  In the end it is left to the reader to decide whether or not she has succeeded.

It’s not giving much away to say that Muriel arrives at the place she was heading for by book end.  The puzzle is how much did her plan really have to do with getting her there?  And what, actually, has occurred?  The object of much of Muriel Axon’s malevolence is directed at one family, the Sidneys, who were there for the events of her mother’s death.   If Muriel’s intention is to ruin their lives, they’ve already done most of the work for her.  Muriel’s talent seems more in the way of moving herself into position to reap the rewards of a series of coincidences rather than setting events into motion.

And coincidences abound in Vacant Possession.  If the novel has a fault it is that the connections between its characters feel contrived, too coincidental and much too convenient for the author.  While I understand that those connections are integral to the plot, Mantel walks a fine line between masterful manipulation and the plain ridiculous.   For example, Colin Sidney’s mother and sister lived in the house behind the Axon’s.  The mother would go to seances which Old Mrs. Axon (Muriel’s mother) performed.  Colin Sidney was having an extramarital affair with the Axons’ social worker.  After Mrs.  Axon’s death and Muriel’s institutionalization, Colin moves his family into the Axon house.  10 years later the social worker’s husband impregnates Colin’s teenage daughter.  We find out that the same social worker’s father had impregnated Muriel 10 years before.  Etcetera, etc.

I feel that I should mention that Vacant Possession was described as a black comedy by British reviewers.  Personally I didn’t see it and wonder if having read Every Day is Mother’s Day would have made a difference.  The book contains funny bits, I especially enjoyed Colin’s asides, but “Savage and funny black humor at its best…”  “Filled with fiendish glee… Lie back and laugh yourself silly…” (blurbs from the cover) seem a bit much.  The novel is entertaining, the writing makes it a pleasure to read, but I can only assume that some of the jokes were lost in translation.

It’s difficult to reconcile the Hilary Mantel who wrote Wolf Hall with the author of Vacant Possession.   The two novels seem orthogonal to eachother, at least structurally .  The former an epic that fills in the spaces left between historical record, the latter a present day thriller which intentionally leaves gaps to be filled in by the readers. Vacant Possession was written in 1986, almost 25 years before her 2010 Mann Booker Prize win, and shows the skills of a mature author in terms of the quality of its writing.  Plot construction may be another story.  At no point in my reading did I want to abandon the novel, but there is an amount of suspended disbelief required to make it to the end.   Ultimately, I enjoyed it immensely because of the writing – Mantel is brilliant and her prose is a pleasure to read.  But I was also left feeling confused and that I lacked the necessary information to fill in the blanks.  The result:  I’ll be on the hunt for a copy of Every Day is Mother’s Day.  It remains yet to be seen if it will provide the answers I’m looking for.

United Kingdom

Publisher:  An Owl Book, Henry Holt & Co., New York.  (2000)
ISBN:  0 8050 6271 8

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