Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 560 pp., $27.00
As I read Hilary Mantel’s brilliant new novel of Henry VIII, his court, and his secretary Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, I kept thinking of Psalm 146, with its admonition, “Put not your trust in princes.” While for the Psalmist the intention is to turn the reader’s trust only to God, a secular misuse — with a decidedly Shakespearean feel — is what kept coming to my mind. As any student of politics could attest, one should never be deluded about a prince: no matter how close you may be to the sovereign, ultimately you live only to serve him, and one day he may decide that your best service can only be performed by a final genuflection before the bloody block. “Thomas, we are the works of his hand,” stresses Cromwell’s first patron, Cardinal Wolsey, as he sees his own downfall before him.
That understanding ripples through nearly every page of Wolf Hall. At the same time, a contrary impulse carries serious, countervailing weight. As Cromwell explains it to his own right-hand man, “[T]he question is, have you picked your prince? Because that is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him — yes, that is possible, yes, that can be done.” In late medieval society, no one aside from the king is his own master, and a masterless man is no man at all. So you pick your prince, and you make your peace with the compromises that entails. Cromwell picks Henry, and the difficulties of navigation required by the clash between his desire to help and his awareness of the often-fatal fickleness of royal favor make for much of the story’s drama.
Readers of English history will know Cromwell already, the commoner who worked his way up to be the trusted aide of Cardinal Wolsey, at the time the most powerful man in England aside from the king. Through a combination of dancing good fortune and preternatural political abilities, Cromwell not only survived Wolsey’s fall from grace, but prospered in its wake, rapidly becoming Henry’s most trusted and powerful adviser before his own inevitable fall. Fans of art will know Cromwell from Holbein’s forbidding portrait, which sits in the Frick Collection next to the same artist’s portrait of Thomas More, Cromwell’s great antagonist. Readers of literature, on the other hand, will know Cromwell from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, which casts him as an unprincipled foil to More’s upright martyrdom. Wolf Hall, imagined in the gaps of the relatively small amount of recorded detail about Cromwell’s life, serves in some sense as a sympathetic corrective to Bolt’s depiction. But it is a much more taut, moving study of the intersections of power, principle, duty, love and capability.
Mantel has tested these waters before, with her impressive novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety (1992). But whereas that novel spread its attention among three of the revolution’s architects, Wolf Hall benefits from the intensity of her focus on Cromwell himself. In her tight third-person narration, his is the only consciousness to which we are privy: it is his medieval world through which we move, the dangers he sees that we hope to skirt. From the first pages, when the young Cromwell survives a beating at the hands of his father, we are wrapped up in the bulldog worldview of a man who has decided that the key to survival is paying attention to the action — and the people — around him:
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 the 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.
We watch as he puts those talents to the service of Wolsey, then — after Wolsey is unable to rid the king of his hated wife, Catherine, in favor of Anne Boleyn — to the service of Henry himself. At the same time, Cromwell always has a weather eye out for the safety of his own back, and those of his family — “It is the only honest thing to be done: look after your children,” he thinks. Fans of power politics, of the imperceptible adaptations and flatteries and favors that make up the brutalities of governance, will be fascinated:
He knows when to let these debts run; there is more than one kind of currency in England. What he senses is a great net is spreading about him, a web of favours done and favours received. Those who want access to the king expect to pay for it, and no one has better access than he. And at the same time, the word is out: help Cromwell and he will help you. Be loyal, be diligent, be intelligent on his behalf; you will come into a reward. Those who commit their service to him will be promoted and protected.
Cromwell not only has dozens of balls in the air at all times, but at any time a number of them just might come back down as knives.
While she represents Cromwell as a supremely political animal, Mantel also draws him as deeply human: She can break your heart with a single word. We feel for Cromwell when he loses his wife to the plague; when he dives into work as a wearing distraction after her death — “It’s two o’clock, then it’s three; sometimes it’s freeing, to think you don’t have to go to bed because there isn’t a bed. He doesn’t need to think of going home, because there’s no home to go to, he’s no family left.”; when he learns, as they look at Holbein’s portrait, that his own hardness runs so deep that even his son thinks he looks like a murderer; when he simultaneously regrets and admires that same son’s inherent softness. Mantel’s Cromwell — as he was historically — is a secret friend to heretics, a proponent of the forbidden vernacular Bible, a skeptic about received wisdom. He is also fundamentally a noticer, unconstrained by blinders of rank or privilege, alert to the latent capability of everyone around him, telling his enemy the Bishop of Winchester, “In a generation these people can learn to read. The ploughman can take up a book. Believe me, Gardiner, England can be otherwise.” He is in many ways — perhaps too consciously on Mantel’s part — a man for our own times: skeptical, shifting, adaptable, refusing to be straitjacketed by outmoded doctrine or musty superstition.
Cromwell’s attentiveness allows Mantel to bring the medieval urban world to unforgettable life. She encloses the reader in it like one of the cedar chests, scented with camphor, that she describes, so that the dark alleys and cold bedrooms and wan sunlight and muddy lanes of medieval London are never far from our minds. Remarkably, she even manages to rescue the concept of luxury from the debased condition it occupies in our era of relative abundance: a good thick carpet, a heavy brocaded robe, even a ripe orange are displayed in their full sensual glory, both marks of success and objects of desire.
It is in the climactic conflict with More that Mantel’s achievement shines most brightly. Her Cromwell is at heart a pragmatist. As he tells a condemned heretic, “I would advise anyone to get a few more weeks of life, by any means they can.” His world is one of shifting loyalties and complication, uncertainty at its core. That uncertainty allows him to live with his compromises (many of which would turn the stomach of a modern reader), while making him extremely wary of the hints of zealotry and desire for martyrdom he detects in More. Long before More’s downfall, Cromwell thinks:
He never sees More — a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod — without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of the world: and the next world too.
Cromwell’s arguments with More in his cell in the Tower of London open a universe of ambiguity and possibility — and our own loyalties, our own sense of justice and humanity, turn and turn as the two men dispute. It is because of those complexities, and the way that Cromwell works through them in his own mind and heart, that Mantel’s portrayal is unforgettable. Wolf Hall is a masterpiece, the crowning achievement of a distinguished career. Even the second time through, I found myself utterly engrossed — and gasping at the intensity of Mantel’s aphoristic insights. You won’t read a better, more lasting novel this year.
In addition to holding a full-time job at the University of Chicago Press, Levi Stahl is the poetry editor for the Quarterly Conversation, the Chicago editor for Joyland and a blogger at I’ve Been Reading Lately. He has written for the Poetry Foundation, the Chicago Reader and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.
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