Monday, January 21, 2013

Mantel unshrouds the dead in Wolf Hall

Towards the end of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell recalls how as a child of six he made coffin nails as his blacksmith father’s apprentice. He wondered then why we nail down the dead and answered the question: “It’s so the horrible old buggers don’t spring out and chase us.”
Many years and many deaths later, Cromwell has another answer.
“He knows different now. It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds and words like stone thrust into their rattling mouth; we rewrite their lives.”
It is an apt way of looking at what is happening in the book’s moment, but it also reflects on what Mantel has done to Cromwell’s life, to what all writers of historical fiction do.
And by this book’s end we might feel as if we are the very privileged reader ghosts, shadowing a vibrant, alive Cromwell, so palpable is Mantel’s unshrouding. She achieves this small miracle through vivid descriptions, a layered peopled world and an interesting narrative construction.
We suspend our lives and immerse into Cromwell’s world.  He becomes our focus. As the narrative unfolds in third person present, we chase him, following his moves, his sentiments, sometimes his thoughts. As Mantel uses the pronoun, he almost becomes Cromwell’s name; even as it reminds us of our literary and historical distance; the pronoun makes him intensely present. This could be, but is decidedly not, a first person present narrative.  It is a life relived as it’s retold – and read.
He starts sprawled and bloodied on the cobblestones, being told to get up by the brawling brute of a father who kicks him when he’s down.
A scrappy kid, he’s regularly beaten up by Walter, a man everyone, including local magistrates, fears. Tom’s crime this time:  ironically fighting, fighting he can only vaguely remember.  His solution: fighting.
Cromwell is less than 15 years old when he leaves his father’s abuse, his hometown and homeland, looking for a war somewhere, anywhere. His only regret – leaving his dog Bella behind, a sentiment that reveals the tender side of Cromwell the reader will come to admire.
The narrative jumps ahead 27 years to a Cromwell who is now a man of the world – one who has not only picked himself up but picked up several languages and business and legal skills as well.  Now conducting business in part as an assistant to Cardinal Wolsey, who mentors him further, the two work to promote the King’s interests whatever Henry VIII determines those interests to be. Chief among them is begetting a male heir – to ensure a smooth succession and prevent civil disruption. 
Wolsey, as a cardinal, will encounter difficulty and pay dearly for it.  He, however, has faith in his apprentice. Wolsey speculates:
I wonder,” Wolsey says, “would you have the patience with our sovereign lord? … If your chance comes to serve, you will have to take him as he is, a pleasure –loving prince. And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful, charm, Tom.”
 That combination of fighting and charm allows Cromwell to ultimately take his place as the King’s most loyal adviser, supervisor of his affairs. Mantel ably depicts a spectrum of characters, many engorged with self-interest.
The coy seductress Anne Boleyn is among the most powerful of these. She spends seven years tempting the king ---  gradually allowing more and more access – at one point he may undress her but not more.
While the king’s primary concerns are sating his appetite for pleasure and producing a male heir, religious heretics and foreign thinkers are undermining the England’s Catholic Church and Thomas More chases and persecutes them.
Ultimately Cromwell engineers what Wolsey could not -- annulment of the king’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the coronation of Anne Boleyn.
The king’s new marriage alone is not enough. He must get others to recognize the marriage and its effect on the succession by taking oaths of support. One who refuses: the now rejected More.
Thus the principled More emerges as practical Cromwell’s chief antagonist. The contrast has been carefully and subtlely developed since the book’s beginning.
While Cromwell has been humane and expedient, More has been ruthless and rigid both with himself and others. One is a man of God’s world; the other of this world. Early on:
“These are good days for him {Cromwell}: every day a fight he can win. “Still serving your Hebrew God, I see,” remarks Sir Thomas More. “ I mean your idol Usury.” But when More, a scholar revered through Europe, wakes up in Chelsea to the prospect of morning prayers in Latin, he wakes up to a creator who speaks the swift patois of the markets; when More is settling in for a session of self-scourging, he and Rafe are sprinting to Lombard Street to get the day’s exchange rate.”
While Cromwell’s political genius for doing what’s expedient is most challenged by More in this book, the fuller human portrait of Cromwell as a son, husband, father, apprentice and mentor anchors it. Henry VIII’s court may be where his mind solves the business of the day, but home at Austin Friars is where his heart is.
Austin Friars is where he picks up women’s gossip and cherishes his daughters, encourages his  gentle, intellectually average  son and  mentors another, Rafe the  young man who is most like a son to him. It is where he hears children play, women laugh, where he loves. It is where a succession of dogs, all named Bella, keep him company.
 At one time  “He thinks, I may not be rich, but I am lucky.” He has a house full of relatives and wards, and visitors everyday and a woman he loves. Later he delights in his wealth.   He revels in the things of this world – and also deeply feels his many losses. Plaque infects his world.
  He has long known how brutal the world is. He has seen a woman  burn to death when he was a young child; he knows live evisceration is the penalty for traitors.
Repeatedly his response to such brutality is kindness and mercy for those less fortunate or more stubborn than he  -- those who hold that beliefs on both sides are more valuable than life Itself. He asks for a merciful end for a protestant heretic John Frith. He seeks similar mercy for the Catholic More.
Home and extended family are his refuge, what he holds most dear. So it is fitting that when Cromwell tries to persuade More to embrace freedom he appeals to him with what he Cromwell values most – the pleasures of family and domestic life. That quality is what the reader admires him for – and alternately questions the sense of More’s principled sainthood.
If the world of Cromwell seems brutal in Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy, the second book, Bring Up the Bodies,  promises more of the same.
 For Wolf Hall, is not where the action takes place, but rather where it leads, the home of the Seymours – including Jane who we know from history will be Henry VIII’s third wife.
Cromwell knows well the implications of a wolf. Towards book’s end as he faces a longtime adversary: “The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.” 
In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell, fighting dog that he is, gets another chance to show his mettle. I hope to again shadow him as he does.


  1. I've been thinking of tackling this one. I will certainly have to before the film comes out since I blog (mostly) about movies based on books! And Wolf Hall is being adapted by HBO and BBC as a television mini series. Peter Straughan is writing the script - he co-wrote the screenplay for Tinker Tailor and The Debt. What actor do you think would make a good Cromwell? How about Ms. Boleyn????

  2. I'm really bad at imagining actors in roles. I think I just don't go to enough movies. I can't get the pictures of him out of my head. He was such a big chested man. Henry is also an interesting character. Who would you suggest?

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