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:
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.
November 5, 2009
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩