Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

By Linda Wolfe

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Linda Wolfe discusses fiction finalist Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (Henry Holt)

I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall very slowly, rationing myself to a score or so of pages a day to prolong the pleasure the book was giving me. Then, to my surprise, when I got to within sixty pages of the end I did something I haven’t done since I was a teenager. I went back and read the book all over again.

This time I finished it. Not without regrets. I’d wanted this work of galloping wit and invention never to end.

It’s the story of the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell, who emerged from humble origins to become one of the richest and most powerful men in Tudor England. Brilliant, hardworking, and competent, Cromwell caught the attention of Henry VIII, who made him his confidante, his chief secretary, his Lord Privy Seal, and in time a nobleman–all before sending him, as Henry sent so many of his confidantes and capable administrators, to the executioner’s block. In the process of telling the enthralling tale of Cromwell’s early years, Mantel takes the hoary genre of historical fiction, turns it on its head, and makes it as fresh and new as the latest of postmodern fiction.

A man at the start of what would in time become a new world order, Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith, a go-getter who reached the heights of power because of his merits not his rank. He was despised by his contemporaries, particularly by the aristocracy that surrounded Henry, who feared being replaced by a governance of talent. It was also, of course, because he, like the king who commanded him, could be–and often was–utterly ruthless. History has disparaged him, particularly because of his role in the executions of both the Catholic Thomas More and the Protestant Anne Boleyn. But, “his character has been painted as so comprehensively black,” Mantel has said, “that any reasonable person would think–as I did–that there must be another side to his the story.”

She finds the other side of that story and gives us a man whose politics were far ahead of his time, a humanitarian and social radical who is as loving to his family and friends as he is harsh to those he opposes. Her Cromwell “is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inns yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon. Draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Lawyer and financier, he’s a master of languages, an admirer of Latin poetry, an adoring husband and father, a man who can speak truth to power, brandish a stiletto, cook up a gingery eel sauce, evaluate the worth of an oriental rug, and stay loyal to his friends even when the rest of the world shuns them. More, he’s efficient. “My sins are my strength,” he ruminates. “The sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they’re mine. Besides, when I come to judgment I mean to come with a memorandum in my hands; I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here, possibly more.” What a man to get to know!

But it’s not Mantel’s revisionist portrait of Cromwell that makes the book so original. It’s her style. Mantel is an experimenter, a daredevil. She uses the third person to tell her tale, a gambit that despite all odds succeeds in making “he” as intimate as the “I” in a first-person memoir. The reader is thrust deep within the head of “the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell”; the tricky turbulent world of Tudor England is seen entirely from behind his ever-watchful eyes.

The dialogue, another of Mantel’s hazardous yet victorious undertakings, sounds at once both appropriate to the period and yet at times boldly sassy and contemporary. “It seems such a long time since we had a baby in the house,” Cromwell says to a woman with whom he is having an affair. “Don’t look at me,” she retorts. “You have a private army, Tommaso,” an Italian friend says to Cromwell. “I suppose you have to watch your back.”

Cromwell’s own thoughts are for the most part recounted in elegant prose. “It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal,” he muses. “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.” Dangerous men are not the unprincipled kind, he speculates, because their actions can be calculated; the ones to look out for are “Men who say they understand you, whose embrace is so tight and ungiving they will carry you over the abyss.” Yet on occasion Cromwell talks to himself in the kind of shorthand in which thoughts actually occur. “Divide and rule,” he thinks about Henry’s technique of reigning, but in a what-the-hell afterthought says to himself, “But then, he rules anyway.” “Witnesses?” he thinks to himself when he overhears some potentially useful gossip about Anne Boleyn. “Dates?” There’s even a train of thought that ends with today’s slangy single word sentence, “Whatever.”

Why is the book called Wolf Hall when Wolf Hall, the ancestral home of Jane Seymour, who will be Henry’s third wife, figures only minimally in the narrative? Yes, there’s a passage about the scandalous shenanigans at the manor, where Jane’s father is having an affair with her brother’s young wife. And yes, there’s a mention of the Latin saying homo homini lupus. “Man is wolf to man.” Some critics have attempted to explain the title by focusing on one or the other of these references, speculating that the book is called Wolf Hall because the doings at the estate indicate that the English nobility was so depraved it could not rule, or that the Latin proverb indicates the lesson to be drawn from the period’s invidious politics. But to me it seems far more likely that the title is another of the author’s cunning tricks. The book ends with Mantel’s Cromwell noting in his diary that he is about to make an excursion to Wolf Hall. It is after this excursion that history’s Cromwell will reach the height of his aspirations, becoming virtually royal by wedding his son to the future queen’s sister, and it is after that grand slam that his mighty career will begin to unravel. The book, like Cromwell, goes to Wolf Hall. What happens afterward is the subject of the sequel Mantel is planning.

Is naming her novel after the ancient estate to which Cromwell is about to travel–the end of his beginning and the beginning of his end, so to speak–a prank on her part? I say sure. For Mantel is a magician, with all kinds of literary chicanery up her sleeve. Her Wolf Hall is one sly triumph of a book.

And I can’t wait for that sequel.