Saturday, October 27, 2012

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Normally the worst part of any trip to Europe is the long hours in the plane, but that was not true for me this time. This was partly the luck of smooth flights and pleasant seat mates, but mainly it was because of Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize in 2009, is a wonderful, remarkable, astonishing book. I loved it. It chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell from blacksmith's son to the heights of power as Henry VIII's right hand man. It makes this rise utterly believable; in fact I would say that it is the best thing I have ever read about how ambitious men of humble birth managed to rise high in aristocratic societies. It is also brilliantly told. I might add that I hate Henry VIII so much that I can barely stand to read historical accounts of his reign anymore, and I have skipped all of the recent round of movies and tv shows about him. Wolf Hall transcends that; it is about Cromwell, Henry, the Boleyns, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas More, but by going so deeply into the life of Cromwell it becomes much more than another book about the damned Tudors; its narrow focus broadens its subject to become all of human ambition.

Much of Wolf Hall is conversation, and these conversations are often presented with very little in the way of background or setting. Sometimes it takes half a page to figure out who is speaking and why. I know some people hate this, and if it bothers you to be confused, or to encounter a fragment of dialogue yanked out of the story and presented without any explanation of its place, you might not like this book. I thought that Mantel made it work wonderfully. We are not told about people, but are shown what they said, or given conversations about them among people who knew them. The main characters grow to amazingly real people in this way. We are given access to the thoughts only of Thomas Cromwell, and they, as well as all his words and actions, make him into one of the most fully drawn characters in all of literature.

Mantel is a stickler for historical accuracy. I did not note any errors in either her presentation of  Tudor politics or her portrayal of daily life in the sixteenth century. She even included bits and pieces of the documentary record, like sentences from laws that Cromwell drafted, and an inventory of the goods of a young woman executed for prophesying the fall of King Henry. I felt confident that everything she describes at least could have happened. Her characters' speech is modern, using metaphors drawn from sixteenth century writing rather than archaic verb forms to create the sense of the past. Rather than trying to paint a wall-sized canvas of sixteenth-century life, she chooses certain details that fit into her story. I thought it was brilliantly done.

But what was Thomas Cromwell really like? He was a hugely controversial figure in his own time and remains so today. His enemies blamed all of Henry's great crimes on him, from his divorce of Katherine to the closing of the monasteries. Hogwash, I say; this is simply the myth of the evil counselor, and everything Cromwell did, he did because Henry wanted it done. One particular controversy about Cromwell concerns his religious views. To his friends, he was a sincere "Bible man" -- Puritan or Protestant, we would say -- who helped dissolve the British monasteries because he loved the Gospel. To his enemies he was a pure opportunist. Mantel takes the view that Cromwell was a Bible man, which to me has always been the more convincing take. After all, it was difficult to be a thoughtful, bookish man (as Cromwell was) in the sixteenth century without having strong views on religious questions. So I would say that I found Mantel's Cromwell as believable as any other figure I have met in a historical novel, and I think Wolf Hall stands as one of the great achievements in trying to imagine the mind of a person long gone.

Parts of Wolf Hall are so sad I had to put the book down and stare out the window for a while. Cromwell lost several people close to him to the plague, and Mantel plays up his affection for them before yanking them out of his life. These losses, which almost everyone of the time experienced, are a crucial part of the background to life in past societies. To understand the emotional world of the past, you must take account of dead children, dead wives, dead friends, and carefully laid family plans undone by plague and war. Mantel also dwells on the frequent executions of people for expressing banned religious views. Cromwell's dislike of the church, and of Thomas More, is fed by the smell of roasting human flesh wafting into the city from Smithfield. This, again, is crucial to understanding the mental world of the sixteenth century, underpinning the hatred of the sects. Among the Puritans who came to America, the Bible was the first book but the second was Fox's Book of Martyrs, which is only a chronicle of the many Bible men and Bible women executed by the British crown.

I say, if you are interested in the Tudors, or in a great book, read Wolf Hall.

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