Wolf Hall

categories: Reading Under the Influence

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel got my attention because of a lauditory review in The New York Review of Books.  It had won the Man Booker Prize in England, too.  I’ve also got a passing interest in Henry VIII, I don’t really know why—Shakespeare, no doubt—and in old England in general, dating from childhood.

The book turns out to be great, a really impressive achievement.  It’s thick in pages, something I love in a good book (my mother told me once that as a child she’d always picked the thickest book she could so it would last longer, and when finished, start it over again, but that was a quieter age and a part of the country in the 1920s with no ballet lessons or tennis or almost any other pleasures at all).  It starts with a father beating his son and kicking him and berating him; the boy beaten is Thomas Cromwell, who runs away from home, runs to Europe.  I’d forgotten who he was, for the most part, a scourge of Ireland, I knew, something to do with the reformation, later to be beheaded.

The novel, which took me weeks to read in odd moments, briefly follows Cromwell’s youth, then picks up as he’s become Cardinal Wolsey’s advisor and more-or-less bag man, a suppressor of minor monasteries, a deliverer of bad news, an enabler of schemes.  Mantel’s vision of the soon-to-be-disgraced-and-deposed Cardinal is where I first got caught up in the book. This historic figure, whose talk is like a history primer, suddenly becomes a man, something gentle in his regard for Cromwell.  Everything before this gentleness is merely confusing—I was having trouble following the story, and more trouble caring about anyone, but after, zoom.  I try to give any fat book fifty or a hundred pages to catch fire.  This one smolders some from the start, but by page 28, decades already having passed, it detonates.  Mantel swiftly and deftly gives the necessary background by imagining a conversation between Wolsey and Cromwell—the latter getting his marching orders from the former: King Henry VIII has decided on Anne Boleyn, and it’s the Cardinal’s and therefore Thomas Cromwell’s job to make it happen within the church and if that won’t work without the church.  The Church of Rome, that is, which Henry is in the midst of superceding.

I love all the back-room scenes, Mantel imagining all the details of relationships and connections and deal-making and double-crosses, and putting Cromwell at the center of all of it.  The descriptions of Henry’s court are so evocative of time and place and atmosphere that I kept looking up from the book surprised to find myself in electric light, in Maine, in another era altogether.  You get a picture of Henry as a person, of Anne Boleyn, of everyone, the historical record wedded to real insight on the author’s part: this is what people are like, even people of destiny.

Reading as a writer, I was at first put off and later fascinated and then impressed by Mantel’s vague use of the pronoun he to denote Cromwell, and very seldom his name. This becomes a form of first person almost, the man thinking of himself through his novelist, though it causes confusion, especially at first.  Often, Mantel notices, as in this moment from page 46 into 47: “The cardinal seems weakened; he seems to feel the weight of his flesh hanging on his bones.  He, Cromwell, slides from his saddle [… ]“ and on.  The referent for Cromwell’s he is going to be the cardinal unless she makes that appositive, but it’s rare that Mantel bothers with such clarification.  So rare that I wondered if an editor had made a query right there and suggested a fix.  More often you’re scratching you head about who slid from whose saddle.  By the end of the book, you’ve come to learn and respect that he means Cromwell, except when it doesn’t and if as reader you can accept that formula, the vague pronoun is no longer vague: “The evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More” [518].  This is at the opening of a section, first sentence, and if you haven’t read the book of course you will be excused for thinking Fisher has visited More.  But it’s Cromwell who’s visited, and by page 518 I didn’t even pause over the locution, pretty cool.

One more question—Is this book finished?  Is this part one?  Odd to stop the life of Cromwell at the point he kills off Sir Thomas More, rather than at his own beheading, which would come many years later and make a great, clear ending.  Another volume?  I hope so, would love to continue through all those wives of Henry VIII, at least up to Anna of Cleves, whom he found so unappealing that he acceded to the execution of Cromwell, who had dared make the match.

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