Monday, 26 May 2014

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall  - Hilary Mantel

I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies together and it adds up to a long novel but it never felt like an effort. When I was a teenager I loved historical fiction and read quite a bit, most of which has been wiped clear from my brain, as has most of my knowledge of English history. Most of what was taught in Ireland back in my day focussed on the injustices perpetuated by the English on Ireland any way. Therefore we got more Oliver than Thomas Cromwell.

I mean I knew that heads would roll and monks faced eviction but not a whole lot else. Some other bits sounded familiar as I progressed but not awfully so. So I wasn't too worried about the absolute historical accuracy of this portrait of Thomas Cromwell, but instead focussed on how convincing a fictional character he was and the quality of the writing. I was not disappointed with either.

The book opens with the fifteen/sixteen year old Cromwell being badly beaten by his violent father, who is even more enraged than usual by Thomas' attempt to stand up to him. The first words are his father's: "So now get up." It is what Cromwell will continue to do throughout Wolf Hall, and indeed Bring up the Bodies.

Even though Thomas is receiving a beating we are quickly told that he himself is a bruiser and built for fighting, and after a brief respite in his sister's house Cromwell heads for the sea, hoping to find a war in Europe in which to make his fortune. When he decides he must go away his sister cries - "She's not crying for him, because nobody, he thinks, will ever cry for him, God didn't cut him out that way."

Although we are intimate with Cromwell, with the narration filtered through his consciousness, we remain aware that it is filtered and we are drip fed information about his experiences on the continent through the first two books and I expect there will be more to come in the book which will conclude the trilogy.

Although we follow him across the channel the book then jumps to England twenty seven years later and Cromwell is at the right hand of Cardinal Wolsey, who doubles as the Lord Chancellor and as King Henry's advisor and enabler. It is clear that Cromwell has not wasted this twenty seven years: "It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt - ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; 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. He will quote you a nice point in old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything."

Wolsey, a lover of ease and luxury, is also a lover of peace, trade and diplomacy.  His success derives from his understanding and anticipation of the King's desires. However, his inability to gain Henry freedom from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon will prove his downfall. One cannot rise to the side of the king without attracting enemies and being tab the mercy of royal whims.

We also become aware of the intellectual battles of the time, between the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans, and those who are placed somewhere between. Much of this has to do with power but it is also a function of greater education and the awareness of how superstition has been allied to religious power. Cromwell is not a superstitious man, and time in Italy (with the Borgias amoung others) has given him a sense of the workings of the church from close up. When Wolsey gives a reliquary of the true cross to Norris, a messenger who brings some "words of comfort" from the king, as he is being stripped of power and driven from his home, one of his men is "upset, astonished." But Cromwell is not: "We'll get him another. I know a man in Pisa makes them ten for five florins and a round dozen for cash up front. And you get a certificate with St Peter's thumbprint, to say they're genuine."

The political intrigues, the sense of shifting webs of power is brilliantly drawn and the reader is drawn into world where all must step carefully, because the favour or lack of favour of the king is the thin ice upon which courtiers must step. Cromwell has to rein in his desire to confront Norris and shake the truth out of him: "You don't get on by being bright. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all these circumstances are extreme, the cardinal in the mud, the humiliating tussle to get him back in the saddle, the talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey's unravelling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart."

Cromwell stays with Wolsey and does his best to ensure that his fall is as comfortable and short lived as possible. His fall will, however, be complete but Cromwell's loyalty and indefatigable work on behalf of his master has been noted and others think that he has many skills and much knowledge that they themselves could use.

So it is that Cromwell survives the exile of Wolsey and soon he is making himself indispensable to the many of his "betters". "He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that's ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep." he is on his way to becoming rich. But he also suffers grief, losing family members to the Plague that reached into every corner of English life at the time.

The ambitious, driven Cromwell is balanced by the family man, creating a home in Austin Friars not just for his own son Gregory and daughters but for other young men that he has fostered and whom he trains and seems to consider his own. Mantel uses vivid images, christmas outfits, meals, a cat to give a sense of a busy domestic life that continues as Cromwell is so often away on the Cardinal's business. But when he is there we see him as a kind and caring father, "putting Gregory's shirt to warm before the fire" although he never quite lets off calculating and judging.

He makes a sort of ally of the Duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn's uncle. "'I tell you, Cromwell, you've got face, coming here.' 'My lord - you sent for me.' 'Did I?' Norfolk looks alarmed. 'Is it come to that?'" He is at court, trying to speak with the king on Wolsey's behalf. "Day by day he takes his instructions from Wolsey at Richmond, and rides wherever the king is. He thinks of the king as terrain into which he must advance, with no sea coast to supply him."

Wolsey dies on his way to face a charge of treason. (It doesn't really count as a spoiler when it's history, does it?) A play is put on at in front of the king and Anne Boleyn; ''The Cardinal's Descent into Hell'." In it, four devils drag a vast, scarlet figure across the floor. All four will remain in a corner of Cromwell's mind. it was his failure to have Henry's first marriage annulled so that he could marry Anne that was Wolsey's unforgivable failure. His treason was that he followed the pope, a foreign leader. Anne was "lit up, glowing" as she watched the play. Henry, however, doesn't enjoy the spectacle as much seeming "frozen", and afraid.

Mantel's Anne pursues queenship with a ferocious tenacity, both on her own behalf and for the promotion of the Boleyn family en masse. "Whenever she spends time alone with the king, Anne reports back to her relations, no detail spared. You have to admire her; her measured exactness, her restraint. She uses her body like a soldier, conserving its resources, like one of the masters in the  anatomy school at Padua, she divides it up and names every part, this my thigh, this my breast, this my tongue."

Cromwell feels some admiration as a realist, and we get many reiterations of his philosophy: "It is not the stars that make us".."it is circumstances and neccessità, the choices we make under pressure; our virtues make us, but virtues are not enough, we must deploy our vices at times." He is the very incarnation of the man who keeps his head while all around him people are losing theirs.

He is also presented as a usurer (in Thomas More's words), but generally more sympathetically as someone who prefers trade to war, and knowledge to ignorance. He sees power shifting from the aristocracy towards merchants and bankers, a position he outlines to the dissolute Lord Percy: "The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot."

Cromwell knows that Henry lack the finances to prosecute war and indeed, that his finances are nowhere near as secure as they should be. He also has a solution. The church, which is enormously corrupt, is also enormously wealthy: "His guess is, the clergy own a third of England. One day soon, Henry will ask him how the Crown can own it instead. It's like dealing with a child; one day you bring in a box, and the child asks, what is in there? Then it goes to sleep and forgets, but next day it asks again. It doesn't rest until the box is open and the treats given out."

These were harsh times, often brutal, and Mantel doesn't shy away from the executions and other unsavoury events. It is a world for survivors and Cromwell is one, and by the end of the book he is doing far better than surviving. He has engineered the dissolution of Henry's first marriage and this has enabled Anne Boleyn to become queen. But the book ends with a pending trip to Wolf Hall, home of many Seymours, including Jane. And we know something Anne doesn't...

postscript one - One of the unexpected connections I felt while reading this was to the two longer novels of Roberto Bolaño. It first coalesced around a passage about "the race of giants who once roamed Britain, and left no trace of themselves except in the dreams of their petty descendents." Bolaño, too, uses giants.
I found myself thinking of Bolaño's work as close relatives of classic historical novels, treating the history of a small poetry movement and it's progenitors as seriously as historical novels treat the power wielded by kings and statesmen.
Both Mantel and Bolaño manage to convey urgency of thought and beliefs with great passion and seriousness, and both create a sense of great vitality and variety. Indeed Mantle, too, does not omit poets,  Thomas Wyatt playing a part in the tapestry she weaves.

postscript two - Cromwell on Ireland - "..Ireland is in revolt. Only Dublin Castle itself and the town of Waterford hold out for the king, while the rebel lords are offering their services and their harbours to the Emperor's troops. Among these isles it is the most wretched of territories, which does not pay the king what it costs him to garrison it; but he cannot turn his back on it, for fear of who else might come in. Law is barely respected there, for the Irish think you can buy off murder with money, and like the Welsh they cost out a man's life in cattle. The people are kept poor by imposts and seizures, by forfeitures and plain daylight robbery; the pious English abstain from meat on Wednesday and Fridays, but the joke runs that the Irish are so godly they abstain every other day as well. Their great lords are brutal and imperious men, treacherous and fickle, inveterate feeders, extortionists and hostage takers, and their allegiance to England they hold cheap, for they are loyal to nothing and prefer force of arms to law...."

postscript three - Mantle also deals with the dying of magic and myth as beliefs, while acknowledging their power to sustain  - "Just this last year a scholar, a foreigner, has written a chronicle of Britain, which omits King Arthur on the ground that he never existed. A good ground, if he can sustain it, but Gregory says, no, he is wrong. Because if he is right, what will happen to Avalon? What will happen to the sword in the stone?"


  1. I found myself thinking of Bolaño's work as close relatives of classic historical novels, treating the history of a small poetry movement and it's progenitors as seriously as historical novels treat the power wielded by kings and statesmen.

    Oh, that is good!

  2. Great commentary Seamus.

    As this one is popular I have heard a lot about it. I did not expect the comparison with Bolaño. It is interesting how authors who on the surface seem so incongruous may actually parallel one another. Of course there may be direct influences.

    1. I suspect that the relationship between Mantel and Bolaño is more one of common antecedents than anything else. That's something that could probably be said of any two books, isn't it? Well I can be a little off-road in my thoughts.

  3. Ditto to what Tom and Brian say above! Although I don't consider myself a fancier of historical fiction as a rule, I'm aware that some of my favorite novels can be labeled as such by those who care to. Mantel's writing--previously vouched for by many, of course, and now seconded by you--had me interested in Wolf Hall already, but your raising of the Bolaño specter definitely sweetens the pot (if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor). I remember when this first came out every other blogger who reviewed it mentioned how "difficult" it was to keep the point of view straight or just understand its shifts in time, so I find it almost comical that you didn't even mention that once. Sounds like a good read--both novels, that is!

    1. Well, Richard, as I struggle to know what planet I'm on, and whether the characters are alive or dead or somewhere in between in Supremo, Mantle's books seem very straightforward. In fact even without the Supremo comparison I never found the point of view difficult. Subtle perhaps, but not difficult.
      There is a real sense that ideas matter and executions just another form of argument. Beheadings might rate as split infiniti(v)es! The sense that ideas really matter is probably the real connection between Mantel and Bolaño.