(Cross-posted from Goodreads, originally published August 2011. Some minor edits.)
I have always been fascinated by the history of England under the Tudors, particularly Henry VIII. I chalk this up partly to a morbid fascination, and partly to a genuine desire to understand the circumstances leading up to the Golden Age of Elizabeth I. (Her family’s Whig hatred of Elizabeth I is one of the few things I hold against Jane Austen.) This being said, I have hidden plot spoilers, but I will not be held accountable for the “spoilers” of history.
Well, to understand the circumstances of Henry’s rule, there are about half a dozen Thomases that warrant examination, and Hilary Mantel chose Thomas Cromwell.
Cromwell has not been particularly well-favored by history; he is most often seen as a shadowy, grasping commoner who rightly sealed his own fate by reaching too high above his station. Not so in Wolf Hall. To those around him, Cromwell retains much of the shadowy, unreadable nature he has been granted by historians (or a lack of historical fact), but since we are granted a sort of over-the-shoulder look into his life, he soon becomes the calm center at the eye of Henry’s storm during the king’s “Great Matter”-- the divorce from his first wife Katherine of Aragon and the beginning of his separation from the church of Rome. Practicality, drive and natural talent are Cromwell’s greatest features, in history as in Mantel’s narrative, but what also emerges is his humanity.
At the height of his prominence at court, Cromwell was painted by the famous portraitist Hans Holbein (the same painter that allegedly painted the ill-fated Anne Boleyn), and in his portrait, Cromwell appears fat, shifty-eyed and unappealing.
This image is not the one I maintained while reading Wolf Hall. Cromwell is first introduced as a teenager (Cromwell doesn’t have a recorded birth date, so his age is always a guessing game), lying on the cobblestones of his childhood home of Putney in a pool of his own blood. However, things look up from there; Thomas is nothing if not resourceful, and he is soon on his feet and making his way through the world. His gift for languages, quick wit and a rather imposing physique (he is frequently said, even by those closest to him, to “look like a murderer”) all give Cromwell an edge in his dealings with the world at large, and when we next see him, he has risen from the gutter into the service of the (in)famous Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. When Wolsey meets his end, Cromwell sticks faithfully by him, but fortunately does not share his fate. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances and simple business savvy, Cromwell becomes a secretary and advisor to the king, becoming enough of a favorite to drag Henry out of his cloistered court to visit Cromwell during a serious illness, a favor the disease-fearing king didn’t even grant to his queens.
As fascinating as it is to see Mantel’s imagining of Cromwell’s life at court, it is his home life that gives the most insight and makes him such a compelling character. Tudor England is not a time or place famous for marital fidelity (Henry VIII did have six wives, after all), but Cromwell is a faithful, loving family man. When fate robs him of much of his “true” family, he cobbles one together from distant relatives, wards and even his employees. In Mantel’s version of events, it is not pure, unadulterated ambition that drives Cromwell to the heights of courtly success, but his desire to maintain his family and raise them to a life of comfort and security, two things very hard to come by in a world of shifting alliances and constant intrigue. Essentially, Cromwell’s loyalty and assiduous attention to the king’s business is directly correlated to his love for his family, sometimes to the detriment of his conscience (Cromwell sided, though only in thought, with the rights of Queen Katherine).
I was afraid at the start of this novel, seeing that it is so long, that Mantel would carry us all the way from the bloody stones of Putney to The (even bloodier) Tower. Cromwell is a historical figure, after all, and anyone familiar with the rule of Henry VIII knows that Thomas Cromwell does not outlive his king. Fortunately (for me, anyway) the novel runs its course through the fall, not of Cromwell, but the earlier demise of yet another Thomas, Thomas More. (This isn’t a spoiler for anyone that knows their history- or watched The Tudors on HBO).
Thomas More is a figure much like Cromwell, in that history is not quite sure what to do with him. Was he the pure-hearted, conscience-driven martyr that many have asserted? Or, as Mantel portrays him, a vain, calculating religious fanatic with his eyes turned to heaven but his hands lighting the heretic pyre? No one can say for sure, but the relationship between Cromwell and More was notoriously difficult, with one aiding the rise of Anne Boleyn and the other refusing to acknowledge her, so Mantel had much to work with.
Henry VIII, Cromwell and More are not the only historical figures we meet, of course. We see the fall of the haughty but faithful Katherine of Aragon and the bastardization of her daughter Mary; the rise of a vengeful, self-centered Anne Boleyn and the birth of her daughter Elizabeth (the “red-headed pig”); the unfortunate but eventually cheerful life of Anne's sister Mary ("the great whore") amidst the scheming of the other Boleyns/Howards; the emergence of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (I told you there were a lot of Thomases) and the comings and goings of many lesser-known nobles. We only get a few brief glimpses of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, which seems at first odd and then prescient, as Wolf Hall is the name of her family’s estate. If Henry’s court was a tapestry, Mantel’s novel is much like the back of the weaving, where all of the threads reveal themselves to be convoluted knots, the ends indiscernible from the beginnings.
In my limited experience, many writers of historical fiction seem concerned only with extremes; characters are either cardboard cutouts made from the remnants of third-rate high school textbooks, or anachronistic insertions that feel, at best out of place, and at worst positively irreconcilable to the times into which they have been unceremoniously thrust. Mantel doesn’t fall into these categories, thankfully. Her characters are fully realized, from queens to back alley mercenaries-turned errand boys and everyone in between. Thomas Cromwell is, of course, both the star of the show and her masterpiece-- the Cromwell she gave me was not the man I was expecting and I am so glad to be surprised.(show spoiler)
Aside from historical accuracy or the nuts and bolts of characters and place names, Mantel’s skill in the mundane is truly exceptional. I never expected to find so much humor in a novel concerned with what was an increasingly terrifying time in history. The everyday people that populate Mantel’s vision of Henry VIII’s court and kingdom are just that; they face reality with a combination of determination, humor and acceptance that I think many of us would see as nearly impossible, looking back as we do from an age of 80-year life expectancy and flushing toilets. I won’t give in and praise the “indomitable human spirit” of her creations, or create parallels between the political situation of the time with current events, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it.
One of the most frequent complaints I have encountered in other reviews is the narrative choice of present tense. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly thrown off by it at first, seeing as Mantel also has a tendency to forgo the use of Cromwell’s name in favor of pronouns, but I think it ultimately enhances Cromwell’s story. History has proven to be unreliable in his case, so why should fiction be any different? The story of Cromwell’s past is never totally clear, even to himself, and we see him slowly construct himself before our eyes and before the eyes of the world. Even his beloved Cardinal Wolsey never knew the specifics of Cromwell’s early life, and took liberties with the stories he told. The use of the past tense would make the story seem more solid, which is not so conducive to understanding as people would like to believe. Here, there is a sensation akin to watching over Cromwell’s shoulder that makes him both lovable and inscrutable; just as his past resides half in shadow, so his thoughts are partially obscured by the immediacy of the present. I think, ultimately, the use of the present tense in telling Cromwell’s story is a method by which to rob him of the unpleasant reputation he has carried through history as a calculating schemer and show him to be a much more impulsive and ethical man than is generally believed.
After all of this, I can assuredly say that it was never the witch Anne Boleyn that held me in thrall, but rather “that devil” Thomas Cromwell.
(On format: highly recommended as an audio book. The narrator of this edition was fantastic).