Ravenous Reading

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 2009

When a book has garnered its author the Nobel Prize in Literature, what more can be said by a little blogger like me? Obviously, it’s a good book. The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and other most illustrious bodies have delivered well-researched and knowledgeable reviews of this historical novel. I will now write a review from the ground that I suspect most of my readers occupy.  With no slight intended toward my discerning audience, I bet that most of you find 16th century English history to be a confusing mess.  I can never keep track of who was dethroning and beheading whom, and whether the Scots were involved.  I know the bit about Henry having lots of wives, though I couldn’t say just how many.  I know it caused an awful row with the Pope.  So it was that I was well into Wolf Hall before I realized that the protagonist Thomas Cromwell must have been a real person. Don’t confuse him with Oliver, who came much later.

Part of what makes this novel work is that it’s a little like Sesame Street, those innocent of knowledge can enjoy it on one level, while the scholars (the grown-ups) can appreciate all the references and plot lines that blow right by the rest of us.  The story follows Thomas Cromwell, a lowly son of a blacksmith who makes his improbable way to the inner council of King Henry VIII, just as the monarch is determined to prove that his two-and-a-half decades of marriage to Katherine of Aragon never really occurred. Since they didn’t occur, he ought to be free to marry Anne Boleyn. Accomplishing this, however, takes the better part of another decade, and still fails to produce the male heir Henry so desperately desires. The reader (even this one!) knows that Anne will lose her head on trumped up charges and additional marriages will ensue. The characters, however, give about 50/50 odds to Anne, and position themselves as best they can.

Mantel juxtaposes the positioning, the intrigues, and the hypocrisy at court with the tumult of the truly religious. A renegade priest has been translating the Bible into English so that all may read it. Those who are caught doing so are tortured and burned. Their friends and family persist nonetheless in such reading. Luther’s bold new version of religion threatens to spill beyond Germany, where Christian communes are taking over cities. In the English countryside,  convents and monasteries house both saintly sacrifice and vile misdeeds. It’s hard to say how things will shake out. Such tumult, in turn, serves to strengthen Henry’s resolve that a male heir must be legitimately got in order to unify and indeed preserve the nation when his reign ends.

While the nobles seem to be reacting at every turn, Cromwell keeps an even keel. Everyone wonders how he became close to the king without the appearance of trying to do so. They wonder at his success in every venture, though they also mock him for having such variety in his experience. He has been a soldier, a merchant, and a lawyer before winning Henry’s favor. Cromwell is a man who never forgets where he came from–not because he has a sentimental attachment to his past, but because one can always find something useful in any situation.  He hasn’t forgotten how to swear with abandon to put the ferryman at ease and see what he’s learned. Nor has he forgotten the quality of wool, or how you can judge a person by the cut of their cloth. He hasn’t forgotten how to take a beating nor even how to kill someone, though he won’t do it himself any more. For all that, one roots for Mantel’s Cromwell. She shows us his home life, his manner of care for his extended family, his sympathy for the Bible men, and his genuine to devotion to those whom he regards highly. In any act of cold political calculation, one can find a gentleness, and in his greatest gentleness one can find a superficiality. He is a complicated character and I had a hard time putting him down to pursue my real world activities.

The book’s title comes from the name of the Seymour manor.  The young Jane Seymour will be queen after Anne loses her head.  Jane is a minor but pervasive character, whose wallflower persona looms over the narrative. The forward-looking title is one of the clever literary techniques of the book. This is historical fiction, yet it is told in present tense and framed by the future. While she seems to have accurately portrayed the sundry details of setting, Mantel doesn’t take pains to remind us that this is a different time with different sorts of people. Once in awhile a colloquial phrase is turned to lovely advantage, but the dialogue is rendered in modern  rather than in ye olde English. Without gimmicks, she provides both historical and eternal truths about humanity.

Were the Seymour home not named Wolf Hall, the title would still work as a reference to the den of wolves that is English nobility, always eager to pick off the weakest of the pack. After finishing the novel, I took the time to do a bit more research on the era. The torture of dissidents, the dismal state of women, the murders and thievery. Mantel has humanized one of the most Machiavellian players in this real life drama, and I wonder if she has done a service in doing so. Yes, each person is a human being with a life that is not all evil all the time, no matter how much evil they contribute to the world. Cromwell was probably no worse than many others. Yet, why do we allow ourselves such fascination with this brutal era?  Wouldn’t we be better to shake it off and say, “Well, I’m glad that’s over?” But then, of course, it isn’t.

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