Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely, on the face of things, to arouse any sympathy at all. To be sure, one could imagine worse: we are not being invited to enter the life of, say, Stalin’s sinister henchman Lavrenti Beria. But Thomas Cromwell, the focus of Mantel’s loving attention for almost six hundred pages, is not that distant from the bureaucratic architect of the Great Purge. This is not Oliver Cromwell, the towering Puritan revolutionary, regicide, and Lord Protector, that we are talking about; it is his older kinsman, related by one of those tenuous lines of descent that excite the genealogically obsessed.
Not that Thomas Cromwell came from an illustrious family; quite the contrary, as the novel makes abundantly clear. The son of an abusive, alcoholic blacksmith, Thomas rose to become for eight crucial years in the 1530s the most powerful political figure in Henry VIII’s England, the man who orchestrated the King’s momentous break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and the seizure of their wealth, and the execution for treason of Sir Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher, the Carthusian monks, and many, many others. You cannot make a Reformation without breaking eggs.
That Thomas Cromwell was a historically important figure is beyond doubt; that he should serve as the sympathetic hero of a novel is more surprising. There was nothing remotely glamorous or romantic in his person. Even the painter Hans Holbein could not pretend that he was handsome. In Holbein’s great portraits Thomas More fairly glows with a deep thoughtfulness; Erasmus focuses his quicksilver wit and ironic intelligence on the quill pen poised above the sheet of paper; but jowly Cromwell, his mouth set in a hard scowl, clutches a piece of paper like a dagger and looks out at the world through wary, piggish eyes.
There was, to be sure, a moment at which Cromwell was regarded as heroic. The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, who fervently celebrated every blow struck against the Pope, considered Cromwell a “valiant soldier and captain of Christ.” But Wolf Hall—which has just won the Man Booker Prize—is not the story of a Reformation champion. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell gives almost no thought to the theological questions that obsessed his contemporaries. He knows, of course, what the Catholic More and the Lutheran William Tyndale are viciously arguing about, and in subtle, indirect ways he inclines to the latter. But he does so not because he is drawn to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone or because he has been brooding about the Eucharist, but because, to his skeptical, calculating, and deeply secular intelligence, the Reformers are useful pawns in an elaborate chess game. That game has a significant religious dimension, but it is not the one on which the novel’s protagonist is staking his life. Mantel takes note in passing of Cromwell’s uncanny ability to ferret out the wealth of the ancient monasteries, wealth often buried like truffles under thick layers of legal mulch. But she does not dwell on the spiritual or even the social consequences of the massive appropriation and redistribution of land and treasure that her hero oversaw. And to her credit, she does not pretend that this wholesale theft was an edifying triumph over monkish ignorance.
At the same time, Mantel decisively distances herself from those—and they are legion—who regarded Thomas Cromwell as the devil incarnate, a man born, as Cardinal Reginald Pole put it, “with an aptitude for ruin and destruction.” For many Tudor historians, as well as for the innumerable contemporaries who feared and loathed him, Cromwell has been the man who worked tirelessly to satisfy the ruthless appetites of the monstrous Henry VIII, to expand the power of the state over lives and property, to accumulate wealth for himself and his cronies, to crush with merciless efficiency any resistance from any quarter. Cromwell was a master of Machiavellian realpolitik. He had a particular gift for luring people to their doom by promising them the King’s pardon, as he did Robert Aske and the other leaders of the Catholic Pilgrimage of Grace. One would think that the first few broken promises would have been enough to scuttle that particular trick forever, but it proved irresistible again and again, so much were people conditioned to accept the solemn word of a prince.
Cromwell’s letters are full of specious assurances of the “great clemency and benignity that is in the Prince.” “If you will yet turn to your country,” he wrote to a renegade he was trying to cajole back to England, “to show yourself sorry for that you have foolishly done, I dare assure you, you shall find the king’s highness much more ready to seek commendation of clemency than of justice at your fault.” And, as if he heard the skeptical snort from across the seas—for in fact the recipient of this particular missive prudently decided to stay put in Rome—Cromwell includes a menacing glimpse of other cards in his hand: “There may be found means enough in Italy, to rid a traitorous subject.”
For those who watched this wily thug at work and suffered from his depredations, there was only one hope: that in the end he would suffer the fate that he had so often meted out to others. Cromwell himself, of course, must have been well aware of this possible outcome. As a careful reader of Machiavelli’s Prince, he had certainly encountered the stories of those who ruthlessly served the will of the ruler, only to be thrown to the wolves at the convenient moment by their ungrateful master. But Cromwell did not need to derive these lessons from his reading: he had himself connived at too many deaths—not only of his enemies but even of friends and allies like Sir Francis Bigod—to be ignorant of the danger he was in. Nonetheless, like the doomed associates of Stalin, he played the game.
Though he played it brilliantly, Cromwell came to the bitter end for which his innumerable enemies had long prayed. After exercising virtually unprecedented power over both church and state from 1532 to 1540, he toppled and fell. Or rather the King, with the terrifying suddenness that was his trademark, struck him down without warning, just at the moment when he seemed most to be basking in the royal favor. (Henry had just created Cromwell Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain.) Charged with a vast litany of crimes, but not given the courtesy of a trial, he was brought to the Tower under a bill of attainder for treason and summarily beheaded. Before he laid his head on the block, he abjured all heresy and declared that he died in the Catholic faith.
Cromwell’s actual life story is, in its way, a somberly fascinating one. But it is not the story that Hilary Mantel has chosen to relate. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall has some of the qualities that his enemies feared and detested—toughness, wiliness, worldliness—but as Mantel depicts them, they are qualities in the service of survival, success, and even a measure of decency in a cruel and indecent world. A formidable character constructed from fundamentally base materials, he is rather like the great mosque of Djenné, a magnificent structure made out of mud.
Mantel has no interest in watching his fall. Her novel takes Cromwell only to 1535, the moment at which he ascends to the height of his power. A vigorous fifty-year-old, he has risen to great wealth; his enemy Thomas More has just gone to the scaffold; the King, who has broken with Rome and married Anne Boleyn, holds him in the utmost confidence. It would have been easy enough for Mantel to gesture toward the future that we—in historical hindsight—know lies ahead, but she does nothing of the kind. Instead the novel ends with the tirelessly calculating and energetic Cromwell charting the King’s travels, as if in a board game, and planning that rarest of events for himself, a few days off:
He plots it out, across country. The object is to get the king back to Windsor for early October. He has his sketch map across the page, England in a drizzle of ink; his calendar, quickly jotted, running down it. “I seem to have four, five days in hand. Ah well. Who says I never get a holiday?”
That’s it. A holiday. He will spend it at Wolf Hall, the house of the Seymour family. A year or so later young Jane Seymour will catch the eye of the King, but Cromwell does not anticipate this fateful turn of events, and Mantel at least feigns indifference whether we anticipate it either. The actual consciousness of historical actors, seen from the inside, can have no secure knowledge of the shape of the future.
Here, and throughout the novel, Mantel invites us to forgo easy irony and to suspend our awareness of what is going to come to pass. To be sure, she offers aficionados of the period quiet pleasures: when Holbein complains that he has to complete a portrait of the French ambassador de Dinteville, we know that he is at work on his magnificent painting The Ambassadors; when Thomas Wyatt discloses his erotic obsession with Anne Boleyn, we know that his private notebooks are full of the love poems for which he is now celebrated; when we glimpse the unctuous musician Mark Smeaton hovering around the court, we know that he will eventually be accused of adultery with Anne and executed along with her other alleged lovers. But none of this latent knowledge actually matters. The triumph of the historical novel, in Mantel’s vision, is to reach a point of ignorance.
What is a historical novel? Though Middlemarch is deeply enmeshed in the England of the Reform Bill, some forty years earlier than George Eliot’s own time, it is not, by most reckonings, a historical novel; it is centrally the story of the fictional Dorothea Brooke. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and its stupendous twentieth-century heir, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, are far closer to what we generally mean by the term. But despite the stunning moments in which we enter the minds of Napoleon or Hitler, our principal focus is on the fictional Pierre Bezukhov and Viktor Shtrum, along with a wide array of other imaginary characters caught up in the burning of Moscow and the Battle of Stalingrad. At issue then is not merely the setting in an era different from the present of the novelist, the interest in significant historical events, and the representation of identifiable, documented historical actors, though all of these are important in establishing the parameters of the form.
In the most fully realized historical novels, the historical figures are not merely background material or incidental presences but the dominant characters, thoroughly reimagined and animated. They are at the center of our attention, and their actions in the world seem to carry the burden of a vast, unfolding historical process that is most fully realized in small, contingent, local gestures. Those gestures are ordinarily hidden from official chroniclers, but they are the special purview of the historical novelist. “Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions,” Mantel writes in a kind of credo: