I put off reading Wolf Hall for four years. I had good reasons. First, everyone was reading it, and it was so hyped it couldn’t possibly be any good. (Right? You get that, right? Massively hyped contemporary literature can turn out to be distressingly bad. I name no names but you know what I mean.) Second, it won the Rollings Reliable Man Booker Prize, and just between you me and the teapot, I find that prize to be a wee smidgen hit or miss. Third, it’s about the politics and internal drama of the English Reformation. They were never going to get that right, they never do. They always modernize the women and downplay the religion and what’s the point of visiting the past if it’s going to look like the present? Fourth, I heard it tried too hard to be “difficult,” using only a pronoun for Cromwell. Fakey-shakey literariness that only results in obscurity is not my style.
Four years. Four years I wasted, when I could have been gloating over this marvelous, insightful, fascinating, beautiful book.
Mantel starts with a little of Cromwell’s background as the son of a viciously abusive blacksmith. We get more hints later: travels, soldiering, work as an accountant, anything to escape his early life. Now he’s Cardinal Wolsey’s man, and Wolsey (who came from humble roots himself) is King Henry’s most trusted advisor. Ambitious Cromwell! But Henry, married for twenty years to Catherine of Aragon, has fallen head over heels in love with Anne Boleyn, and Anne is ambitious too. (Catherine is no slouch, either. She has no intention of letting go of her marriage with any grace. Well, would you?) Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from favor is sudden and brutal. If he’d been a nobleman, it might have been better cushioned, but his obscure background made it easier to be rid of him. A life lesson for Cromwell, who never skates on anything other than thin ice in this book. Cromwell’s job is to do what the king wants: obtain a divorce, write new and brilliant legislation, get everyone to agree with him, apply pressure on the pressure points. He’s not a bad man; in fact, in many ways he’s generous, kind, educated, and thoughtful. But he knows how to ask so he gets a yes.
The genius of this book — or one of them, since there are many — is that we see everything through Cromwell’s lens. I’ve read my history, and I’ve seen A Man for All Seasons; there are many ways to understand the highly-principled behavior of Thomas More. Here, though, we understand it the way Cromwell does. Why doesn’t More simply obey the King, as his subject? They’ve made it so easy for him to do so. All he has to do is agree. Cromwell, who is a go-along-to-get-along sort of person, boils with impatience at More’s excess of piety, for whose sake he will not spare his wife or his daughters. When it comes to More’s final sacrifice, Cromwell has little sympathy, and we see his point, because we’ve seen the entire scenario through his eyes. It’s the same with Cromwell’s care to make a friend of Anne Boleyn: whatever he may think of her personally, or of the divorce, he keeps it well under wraps. His job is to keep her happy, and thereby the King.
Mantel portrays Cromwell as a man who takes advantage of others’ perception of him. He goes from strength to strength — survives the fall of Wolsey — partly on his real abilities, and partly on others’ notions that he is more pitiless than he has ever had occasion to be.
Sometimes, when Chapuys has finished digging up Walter’s bones and making his own life unfamiliar to him, he feels almost impelled to speak in defense of his father, his childhood. But it is no use to justify yourself It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.
Mantel never forgets the complexities of politics and religion. The Reformation oozes in around the corners, like water: in law, in rumor, in conversation, in everyday life, by means of people calling out “Hocus Pocus” during mass as much as by Tyndale’s Bible, by means of storytelling and careful pregnancies and inheritance and concern about incest and changing the name of the Pope to the Bishop of Rome. But she also tells us about the heart-catching details of everyday life that would be the same whether England were reformed or not: when Cromwell weeps at the bedside of his dead daughter, when he tries to give his son a better life than he had himself, when he helps a friend out of a scrape, when he looks at an unflattering portrait of himself and wonders how true to life it might be, when he sits down to eat with friends or with enemies.
I read so many (so many!) people who seemed to find Mantel’s style impossible. I saw her use of punctuation trashed, and the thing about using “he” instead of Cromwell appeared to be almost insuperable for a lot of people. I just. do. not. get this particular criticism. I found the book gripping literally from the first page, and while I won’t say it was unputdownable (I actually put it down a lot, like a normal person) it was exciting and very suspenseful, especially considering that it’s history and I knew what would happen. The style was not just readable — I never noticed an issue with punctuation or pronouns, and the “he” vs. Cromwell thing was clear every time it needed to be — it was beautiful.
Near the end, Mantel turns delicately on herself as author of historical fiction (as she does at various times during the book.) This is our reason for reading, this is our reason for writing:
When he was a small child, six years old or about that, his father’s apprentice had been making nails from the scrap pile: just common old flat-heads, he’d said, for fastening coffin lids. The nail rods glowed in the fire, a lively orange. “What for do we nail down the dead?”
The boy barely paused, tapping out each head with two neat strokes. “It’s so the horrible old buggers don’t spring out and chase us.”
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 stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.
Bring up the bodies, indeed.