Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

Wolf HallHilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was published in late 2009 to great critical acclaim, winning both a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize; its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, appeared just last year, and it too won the Booker Prize. Her subject is early 16th century England: Henry VIII is in power but the queen, Katherine of Aragon, has failed to produce a male heir, creating a potential power vacuum  that divides the interests not only of England but of Europe as well. Martin Luther is sowing doubt and dissension with his criticisms of the papacy and the selling of indulgences, which allow wealthy Catholics to buy their way into heaven or reduce the length of time their family members spend in purgatory. And people like William Tyndale are daring, at great personal risk, to translate the Bible into English (and other vernaculars of 16th century Europe), giving the people a power of interpretation that had henceforth belonged exclusively to church authorities. Humanistic learning, fueled by a return to the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, captured in Renaissance art, music and literature, and propagated by the printing press, is undermining church orthodoxy and the very foundations of power. Consider, for example, the so-called “divine right” of kings to rule over subjects, or the lovely Latin axiom extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: outside the church, there is no salvation – both subject to greater scrutiny when the Bible is revealed to contain no mention of the Pope.

Heretics, defined broadly to mean those openly critical of church doctrine, are tortured, disemboweled, beheaded, hanged or burned alive; public executions are not simply a regular occurrence but expected public entertainment. And it is into this political and cultural climate, primed for conflict, that Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, is asked to find a way to annul the king’s marriage and re-marry him to Anne Boleyn, the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. The political and cultural ramifications of this action are far-reaching, and a great deal of the book’s appeal is founded on Mantel’s adept probings into the workings of 16th century English society: the customs surrounding marriage and childbirth, the workings of the family home and the king’s courts, and the rigid, hierarchical nature of the society itself.

But the greatest appeal is her portrayal of Cromwell, a man to whom history and literature have been unkind. He is largely remembered as an unprincipled upstart, a schemer without scruples looking only to advance his own career, the Machiavellian rival to the saintly Thomas More, beatified both by the Catholic church and Robert Bolt in his play A Man For All Seasons. More is a principled man, a Catholic of unwavering faith who chooses to die rather than betray his convictions, and for this he is certainly worthy of some regard, but the uncomfortable truth, conveniently left out by many of his chroniclers, is that he took great delight in sending men and women to the Tower, in hunting down heretics and burning alive critics of the Pope. Mantel’s Cromwell, on the other hand, is a charmer, careful with his words and decisive in his actions. He loves his family and displays immense loyalty to those close to him, but is ruthless in his pursuit of what he needs and not above bullying and extorting to achieve his ends. He is also a skeptic, in what, I surmise, must be the most anachronistic detail in the whole novel, but it is precisely this quality that makes him such an acute lens through which to view English society. Consider, for example, his brief overview of 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 harbors 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 Wednesdays 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 feuders, 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.

Mantel manages to condense English-Irish relations in one paragraph, and she does so with a vivid and humorous prose characteristic not only of Cromwell, whose pithy one-liners and repartees amongst the piety and pretense of the English nobility endear him to us, but of the work as a whole. I was particularly impressed by her refusal to box the female characters into limited roles, to write them off as mere victims without aim or agency. Anne Boleyn is rescued from history every bit as much as Cromwell. In Mantel’s telling, she is a vindictive schemer, aware of the power she has on men, particularly the king, and eager to exploit it for personal gain. She is also jealous, and the jealousy of a queen is a frightening thing, even to men of great standing.

What results from Mantel’s efforts and prodigious imagination is a novel of great ambition, with much to say not only about history but about humanity. As with George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series, political intrigue and individual ambitions drive the plot, but, unlike Martin, Mantel manages a subtlety and refinement that makes a mockery of the gratuitous sex and violence used by Martin to distract from the monotony of his prose.