Wolf Hall, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2009, is a unique vision of English history.
Midway through Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel’s mammoth novelistic account of political intrigue and diplomacy in early 16th century England, there is a description of the making of spiced wafers. “The process involves a good eye, exact timing and a steady hand. There are so many points at which it can go wrong… If you miss a beat the smell of scorching permeates the air. A second divides the successes from the failures.”
This might easily be an account of the acuity required to survive – even if only for a short while – in the boiling plate that is the court of King Henry VIII, one of England’s most mercurial rulers. It’s a place where people routinely go from being in enviable positions to finding their heads on the chopping block, and Mantel’s book takes us straight to the heart of a storm: the king’s wish to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry the young Anne Boleyn instead, a decision that will have strong reverberations on history since it will lead directly to the English Reformation (the separation of the English Church from the papacy of Rome). Historical figures such as Cardinal Wolsey, his successor as Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, and the Duke of Norfolk stride through these pages, but the central character in Mantel’s retelling is Thomas Cromwell, who rose from being a blacksmith’s son to becoming Henry’s chief minister and one of the engineers of the Reformation.
When we learn about history primarily through cold details set out “objectively” in textbooks, it’s possible to forget that the distant events we take for granted were really the accumulated products of the personalities, life experiences and whimsies of human beings who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time: real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas and biases of their own. One of the things Mantel does wonderfully well in this book is to show how Cromwell’s life and character came to have a bearing on the vital events of his time.
From the beginning, Cromwell is an outsider: at age 15 he left his country to escape his brutal father, and spent his youth in France and Italy. Shortly after the present-day of the novel begins, his patron Wolsey falls out of favour and then he loses his wife and daughters to the plague. Mantel’s restrained writing doesn’t spell out his grief, but we sense the turmoil underneath. Cromwell’s circumstances and his detachment from the country of his birth give him certain elasticity in thought, which aids his rise to power.
Wolf Hall is a reminder of how “perspective tellings” can bring nuance to the way we view history. It’s also a reminder that history is built not just on lofty ideological clashes but on bedroom shenanigans – on a king’s lust for a woman who is withholding herself from him. There is a lot of casual bawdiness here: people gossip about whether Anne is a virgin and how far she has let the king go. (“She is selling herself by the inch,” says one, “She wants a present in cash for every advance above her knee.”) There is discussion of maidenheads, of who has done it with whom, and of the promiscuity of the French.
Mantel mostly uses formal contemporary language and locates humour in unexpected places, as in the passage where the unhappy, exiled Wolsey is met by a messenger bearing words of solace from the king. Stylistically, a minor irritant is her use of the pronoun “he” for Cromwell as if it were a synonym for his name, even in passages where two or more male figures are present and where it isn’t self-evident who the “he” refers to. In principle this is a good way of keeping the reader tied to Cromwell’s consciousness, but the device hinders lucidity in places.
Wolf Hall presupposes a reader’s familiarity with the basic facts of Henry VIII’s reign; given its vast canvas of characters and complicated interrelationships, it helps to have more than a passing knowledge of the period. It’s useful, for instance, to know that a peripheral character will eventually become another of Henry’s brides and that her destiny will be closely tied to Cromwell’s; that Anne Boleyn’s baby daughter – a source of disappointment to a court desperately awaiting a male heir – will become Elizabeth I; and that Cromwell himself, though he ends this book at the height of his powers, will eventually meet with the same fate as Thomas More did. This may be a 650-page novel, but it’s well aware that it covers only a tiny sliver of a fascinating historical period. This makes the abrupt ending, which leaves Cromwell suspended in time, seemingly on the brink of even more compelling events, all the more apt.