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How It Must Have Been

This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.

Historical novels have a further characteristic. They generate a sense in the reader best summed up in exclamations like “Yes, this is the way it must have been”; “This is how they must have sounded”; “This is what it must have felt like.” Historical accuracy is not the issue: scrutiny of Cromwell’s surviving letters suggests that he probably did not sound very much like Mantel’s hero. What matters is the illusion of reality, the ability to summon up ghosts.

The historical novel then is always an act of conjuring. The works of certain gifted historians, especially those with anthropological and psychological interests, produce a somewhat similar effect: among the most striking examples are Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, and Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning. But such works achieve their sense of authenticity not only by uncovering remarkable, intimate details from what Shakespeare calls “the dark backward and abyss of time,” but also by leaving certain doors closed on principle, that is, by frankly acknowledging the limits to the recovery of the past.

The historical novel does not have such limits. It offers the dream of full access, access to what went on behind closed doors, off the record, in private, when no one was listening or recording. And the great realizations of this dream—works like H.F.M. Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey, Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French, and now Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall—provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life. They set the dead in motion and make them speak: I am not a stick figure in a textbook; I was once alive, emotionally complex, beset with fears and daydreams, just as you are now. I will hide nothing from you. I will reveal to you what it actually felt like to experience in the flesh certain historical forces that are fixed in certain frozen formulaic phrases: the Italian Renaissance, the English Reformation, the Irish Uprising. And I will do so in a way that will make you feel, in the midst of a sober conversation about court politics, the touch of the real: “Try one of these sugared almonds.”

In English literature it was Shakespeare who invented much of what we expect to find in historical novels. “My lord of Ely,” purrs the malevolent hunchback Duke of Gloucester,

when I was last in Holborn
I saw good strawberries in your garden there.
I do beseech you send for some of them.

Shakespeare borrowed what he found useful in the chroniclers and then relied on his imagination to confer upon his historical figures the appropriate intimate gestures and a language in which to articulate their dreams and desires.1 The effect was electrifying: the playwright’s contemporary Thomas Nashe wrote that ten thousand spectators wept to see the death of “brave Talbot, the terror of the French,” as it was reenacted in one of Shakespeare’s earliest history plays. It was not merely a matter of recalling an event from two centuries earlier; the audience members in 1592, Nashe observed, felt that they were watching it happen before their eyes.

In his later career Shakespeare moved in different directions, but he by no means abandoned the history play altogether. Indeed one of his last plays, Henry VIII, takes up precisely the events that lie at the heart of Wolf Hall. (The contemporary title of this play, All Is True, gets at something that the historical novel wishes to get at.) It is striking that Shakespeare relies on one of the historical sources upon which Mantel draws heavily, George Cavendish’s The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, and still more striking that his play ends at almost the same moment as Mantel’s novel.2


Mantel’s novel begins in Putney, in 1500. Thomas Cromwell is a fifteen-year-old boy. His vicious, drunken father Walter is in the act of kicking him unconscious:

Blood from the gash on his head—which was his father’s first effort—is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.

What is established here? The murderous violence of his father, of course, but also the novelist’s ability to bring us extremely close to her subject, close enough to follow the sightline from his eye to the stitching of the father’s shoe. That is, we are at once viewing the scene from above—“Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard”—and at the same time we are down on the cobbles, looking through Cromwell’s squinting eye. Through the whole of the novel—which is narrated entirely in the present tense—we simultaneously find ourselves inside Cromwell’s head, seeing the world through his eyes, and also outside him, taking his measure.

Mantel contrives a telling effect by often referring to Cromwell as “he” without further identification, so that in many sentences the reader must figure out where, in a welter of “he’s” and “him’s,” Cromwell is. Here is a relatively simple instance. The novel has jumped ahead twenty-five years—Cromwell, about forty years old, is the right-hand man of the powerful, worldly Cardinal Wolsey, who always dresses, Mantel writes, only in red of various weaves, “the best reds to be got for money.”

There have been days when, swaggering out, he would say, “Right, Master Cromwell, price me by the yard!”

And he would say, “Let me see,” and walk slowly around the cardinal; and saying, “May I?,” he would pinch a sleeve between an expert forefinger and thumb; and standing back, he would view him, to estimate his girth—year on year, the cardinal expands—and so come up with a figure.

The point is not to create an insoluble puzzle but to make you, the reader, do a little work in order to orient yourself. And orienting yourself in this novel always means returning to Cromwell, who has, we are told, a special gift for orienting himself: “He is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” After the beating at the hands of his father, we learn, the young Cromwell ran away from home to the Continent, where he acquired many skills, including languages, soldiery, the art of memory, double-entry bookkeeping, and—as we see here—the ability to price cloth.

It is a measure of Mantel’s skills as a narrator that we have not seen the last of the cardinal’s robes. For Cromwell, contemplating the spectacle of his master and mentor’s disgrace, it is “as if Wolsey’s unraveling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.” And some 170 pages later, Cromwell is still in the grip of their material and symbolic power:

The cardinal’s scarlet clothes now lie folded and empty. They cannot be wasted. They will be cut up and become other garments. Who knows where they will get to over the years? Your eye will be taken by a crimson cushion or a patch of red on a banner or ensign. You will see a glimpse of them in a man’s inner sleeve or in the flash of a whore’s petticoat.

This is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.

The upstart Wolsey has risen to great power because of his single-minded determination, as Cavendish puts it, to advance the King’s “will and pleasure without any respect to the case,” that is, no matter what the circumstances.3 But he is brought low by his inability to serve the royal “will and pleasure” in what was known as the King’s Great Matter—Henry’s determination to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who has not succeeded in giving him a male heir, and to marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey’s failure to persuade the Pope to grant the divorce is certainly not the cardinal’s fault—the political pressure on the Vatican from rival monarchs is far too strong—but it spells his downfall. Though Cromwell, who loves Wolsey, shares his master’s pain, he is also, as the novel shows, empowered by the disaster. For the King has taken note of Cromwell’s exceptional abilities and wants them in his own service.

Cromwell is unencumbered. Unlike Wolsey, he is not a churchman, and—the virtue of his miserable origins—he has no powerful aristocratic family whose interests he must serve. Indeed he has almost no family at all. Mantel describes with extraordinary restraint and quiet eloquence the plague deaths of his beloved young wife and daughters. He thus finds himself virtually alone in the midst of a fantastically complicated, fantastically dangerous situation to which he brings the personal qualities Mantel has been deftly sketching from the earliest pages. Here is a first glimpse of Cromwell’s practical intelligence, in the adolescent boy’s flight from his father:

If you help load a cart you get a ride in it, as often as not. It gives him to think, how bad people are at loading carts. Men trying to walk straight ahead through a narrow gateway with a wide wooden chest. A simple rotation of the object solves a great many problems.

And here, when the runaway crosses the Channel, is a first glimpse of his quiet skepticism—not atheism, by any means, but a certain distancing of himself from conventional piety:

Kat has given him a holy medal to wear. He has slung it around his neck with a cord. It makes a chill against the skin of his throat. He unloops it. He touches it with his lips, for luck. He drops it; it whispers into the water. He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.

These are the qualities, in Mantel’s admiring account, that enable Cromwell to survive and flourish—at least for the stretch of years that she chronicles—in the shark-infested waters of the court. As we had stared through Cromwell’s eyes at his father’s menacing shoe, so now we stare through his eyes at the King’s menacing mistress:

At the feast Anne sits beside Henry on the dais, and when she turns to speak to him her black lashes brush her cheeks. She is almost there now, almost there, her body taut like a bowstring, her skin dusted with gold, with tints of apricot and honey; when she smiles, which she does often, she shows small teeth, white and sharp.

Above all, Cromwell must keep in crisp focus his royal master—“Rubies cluster on his knuckles like bubbles of blood”—and connive at serving his will and pleasure.

Stopping at nothing to serve the appetites of a rapacious king is not ordinarily viewed as an admirable endeavor, and we return again to the implausibility of any claim to Cromwell’s heroism. But Mantel makes a case by setting Henry, with all of his flaws, against a figure who is in Cromwell’s eyes far more distasteful, vicious, and frightening: Thomas More. The King’s faults are those of unfettered appetite; he is dangerous, but only as a hungry beast of prey is dangerous. More, as Mantel depicts him, has the particularly human perversity of religious fanaticism conjoined with sly intelligence. As a child, Cromwell had seen the horrifying spectacle of an auto-da-fé, and in More he recognizes the cold intellectual force behind it:

More says it does not matter if you lie to heretics, or trick them into a confession. They have no right to silence, even if they know speech will incriminate them; if they will not speak, then break their fingers, burn them with irons, hang them up by their wrists. It is legitimate, and indeed More goes further; it is blessed.

Cromwell finds More’s ascetic spirituality, his taste for hairshirts and self-flagellation, repellent, and he loathes More’s fraudulent urbanity, “his ability to make his twisted jokes, but not take them.” The More of Wolf Hall is not Robert Bolt’s principled man for all seasons; he is the man who wished to have the words “terrible to heretics” carved in his epitaph, who attempted to set up an English Inquisition, who chained and interrogated suspected Protestants in his own house in Chelsea, who sent men and women to the stake. Against this murderous deployment of terror in the name of salvation, Mantel’s Cromwell reluctantly opts for the unchecked power of the secular state. And then he plans his brief holiday at Wolf Hall.

  1. 1

    The detail about the strawberries is found in Thomas More’s devastating portrait of Richard III, which was then picked up by the chroniclers Holinshed and Hall. Many of the techniques of the historical novel are anticipated by humanist historians who are drawing upon classical models.

  2. 2

    In Shakespeare’s case, the ending enables him to provide a stirring vision of the glorious destiny of the King’s newborn baby, the future Queen Elizabeth, and to avoid the ugly spectacle of Henry’s subsequent divorce from the baby’s mother, Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII was performed some years after Elizabeth’s death, but English audiences did not need to be reminded that the Queen’s mother had been executed for adultery and Elizabeth herself declared a bastard.

    Shakespeare’s emphasis is not on Cromwell but on the man who gave Cromwell his start, Cardinal Wolsey. The play gives Cromwell little more than a few conventional lines of departure from his disgraced master. Grasping that he has fallen and that there is no hope of recovery, Wolsey sends Cromwell away, commending him to the king:

    Seek the King-
    That sun I pray may never set-I have told him
    What and how true thou art. He will advance thee.

    Some little memory of me will stir him.
    I know his noble nature not to let
    Thy hopeful service perish too. Good Cromwell,.
    Neglect him not. Make use now, and provide
    For thine own future safety.

    Safety” is a strange thing to seek from Henry VIII, and the paradox is intensified in Wolsey’s final words of advice:

    Say Wolsey, that once trod the ways of glory,
    And sounded all the depths and shoals of honour,
    Found thee a way, out of his wreck, to rise in
    A sure and safe one, though thy master missed it.
    Mark but my fall, and that that ruined me.
    Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition.

    Ambition is precisely the thing that no one in the orbit of Henry VIII, least of all Thomas Cromwell, can possibly fling away. But like Wolf Hall, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII deliberately leaves the irony unremarked and undeveloped.

  3. 3

    George Cavendish, “The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey,” in Two Early Tudor Lives, edited by Richard S. Sylvester and Davis P. Harding (Yale University Press, 1962), p. 12.

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