How Hilary Mantel's new novel, Wolf Hall, turns Tudor history into a compelling piece of fiction

 From The Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 2009
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Hilary Mantel's Henrician hero

How Hilary Mantel's new novel, Wolf Hall, turns Tudor history into a compelling piece of fiction

Henry VIII had six wives and at least as many Thomases: Wolsey, More, Cranmer, Cromwell, Howard (Third Duke of Norfolk), Wriothesley (pronounced "Risley", eventually First Earl of Southampton). Dismissed, beheaded, survived (to be burnt at the stake by Henry's daughter Mary), beheaded, survived, survived. Other Thomases could be mentioned – the poet Wyatt (died), for one, or Audley (died), More's successor as Lord Chancellor. The Cambridge scholar Thomas Bilney was burnt as a heretic in 1531; he was known as "Little Bilney", which is small help when reading Wolf Hall, a novel in which all of these Thomases, as well as their King and a couple of those lucky women, appear.

For Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell is the hero of this, one of the more violent hours in English history; we begin with him being almost kicked to death in Putney by his raging, alcoholic father. The year is 1500 in this charming prelude, nearly thirty years before the crucial decade of Cromwell's rise to power – his emergence from the shadow of his master, Cardinal Wolsey, his efficient ecclesiastical reforms, his overseeing of the King's first remarriage.

He is born low but, after Putney, reborn great. Foreign powers find him worth spying on, and Francis I personally invites him to transfer his allegiance to France. In 1500, however, in Wolf Hall, he is just that: "he". Grammatical intimacy is thrust upon us. Mantel is forced to write "he, Thomas Cromwell" on several occasions, in order to clarify who "he" is, but usually there is no need. "Half the world is called Thomas." But there can be only one he, Cromwell:

It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin . . . 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.

Or as More tells Wolsey in the anonymous play The Life and Death of Thomas, Lord Cromwell: "My lord, you are a royal winner, / Hath got a man besides your bounteous dinner" (this play was once thought to be by Shakespeare). Here is the man for the job of cleaning up England's act – or acts. Wolf Hall covers the period in which Cromwell put more legislation through Parliament than it would see for another 300 years, including the Act of Supremacy, by which Henry VIII asserted his authority over his own divorce, against that of the Pope.

Beyond the common name and the commoner personal pronoun, the nice points and the programme of reform, however, this Cromwell remains a mysterious, disconcerting blank. His own sister cannot "add [him] up"; rumours about his lost years abroad make it easy for courtiers to believe in the earnestness of his threats, when it is necessary for him to make them. He is "Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomaes Cromwell", also "Cremuel" to the French, his "past selves" gathered in a "present body". It is the compound nature of this formidable figure that intrigues Wolsey and King Henry himself, that scares the noblemen who don't like to see merit making its way in the world, and ultimately renders him a blank to himself, as well as to others. Since his birth date is uncertain, his fate cannot be astrologically fixed. Those who claim to understand him, he believes, claim more than he does himself.

After the boy Cromwell's nasty fall in Putney, Mantel skips ahead to Wolsey's possibly nastier one, when the King deprives him of his office as Lord Chancellor in 1529. Scenes of the Cardinal's noble enemies coming, on the King's behalf, to confiscate his material wealth enfold scenes of comfortable plotting at York Place, with Wolsey still in his pomp but struggling to find a way to give Henry what he wants: to be rid of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, so that he can marry Anne Boleyn.

In Cromwell's eyes, Anne and her family faction have been wrong to despise Wolsey, the only man who can help them in their quest for power. Like the Wolsey in Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII, who offers a dignified lament for his own defeat, this one has a special, virtually paternal relationship with Cromwell. For the latter, this prince of the Church would have made a finer king than Henry Tudor, and Wolf Hall is partly the story of a servant's revenge on his master's enemies.

Fortunately for Henry and Anne, who initially distrusts Cromwell, his methods exceed even those of his subtle master for efficacy against both interference from foreign powers and meddling from within the realm. A series of gradually more involved encounters with the King show Cromwell gaining his trust and admiration. His prospects prosper with Anne's. Of course, there is the small problem of the child she eventually bears: an ill-tempered redhead who is not the male heir whom Henry craves.

Meanwhile, the traffic between London and Antwerp includes letters for More from "my derlynge" Erasmus, and the contraband theology which More, as Lord Chancellor, seeks to destroy. William Tyndale, the translator of the New Testament into English, is out there somewhere, on the run. While Cromwell seeks a reconciliation between theological extremists, More seeks absolute conformity – the extinction of both Tyndale and his influence. In More's utopian eyes, it is a "blessed" act to torture a heretic or trick one into a confession.

Among its other stories, then, Wolf Hall also sets up a great opposition between these two lawyers – Cromwell and More, both masters of rhetoric's wily precision, both Henrician servants on the make, and their relationship, like that between Cromwell and Henry, increasingly involves a credible vein of sympathy as well as antagonism. It dates back to the moment when a very young Cromwell asked a slightly older More what he was reading. The Hamlet-like answer came back: "Words. Words. Just words". To neither Thomas could words ever be just that.

Wolf Hall also has its attention fixed on things that no parliament has ever ratified. "Beneath every history, another history." After playing it fairly straight for four chapters, Mantel suddenly offers us "an occult history of Britain": how there was once an island on "the edge of the known earth" which became known as Albina, bloodied at birth, and how demons and princesses gave rise to a race of giants who "spread over the whole landmass". The giants and their leader, Gogmagog, were defeated by Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, who had killed his own father "by accident". "Whichever way you look at it, it all begins in slaughter."

These are just words, of course, just myths. But the reader may think of them later, when the founding Tudor victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field is mentioned, or when Henry is seen freely, happily riding away with the hunt while a martyr's remains are being "shovelled up" at Smithfield: "his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compact of mud, grease, charred bone".

Now it is possible to put Cromwell's giant brute of a father in his place: as a savage forefather to an age of grace. (At least that is what the son hopes it will become.) There are also rumours of a more recent secret history, of bad blood in the monarchy and an unfortunate proliferation of claims to the throne. A prophetess, Eliza Barton, declares in public, to the King's face, that he will not reign for seven months if he keeps the heretic Anne. Two washed-up fish "of prodigal size", giants of the Thames, are taken as bad omens. Superstition and ignorance are traps for the unwary and propaganda tools for those who wish to turn the tide one way or the other.

There is little if any mention here of the real Cromwell's concerted campaign in print to vindicate his policies ("that young giant, the printing-press", says one historian). One could imagine a different Cromwell emerging from the known facts about his part in forcing the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533 through Parliament (ignoring even the King's emendations to the draft, for example), or his unauthorized encroachment on a neighbour's land when expanding his property at Austin Friars (the neighbour's son was John Stow, who duly recalls Cromwell's presumption in his Survey of London: "the suddaine rising of some men, causeth them to forget themselues"). Or the tactics he deployed against the old religion, as described by Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars (1992).

Instead, Mantel presents Cromwell as a sceptic, a modern: more our contemporary than More's, a believer in rational light (light streaming through clear windows, purged of stained glass, being a persistent image in this novel), and a despiser of the lazy corruption of the monasteries. From his European tour of duty, he brings intellectual gifts appropriate to every occasion. Has the King's bastard son read Castiglione's Book of the Courtier? He recommends the passages on "gentlewomen and their qualities". What might Henry make of Marsiglio of Padua, who proposed as long ago as 1324 that "Christ did not make Popes"? He might, it turns out, see a money-making opportunity. And when Henry Percy, the dull-witted Earl of Northumberland, whines at an inconvenient moment that Anne Boleyn is his betrothed wife, not the King's, there is a more general explanation of how things stand:

The world is not run from where he [Percy] thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall [formerly York Place, formerly Wolsey's palace]. 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.

This, the Abacus to Bugle primer in world affairs, does not just describe the sixteenth century, of course, and it is not the only occasion on which Cromwell is made to sound ahead of his time. (Henry Percy is, not incidentally, the man who finally arrested Wolsey, on trumped-up charges, after his dismissal.) He speaks of all things, from royalty downwards, with something like post-millennial scepticism, if not downright anachronistic irreverence. It seems only natural that his thoughts sometimes seem to merge with those of the narrator.

Yet for all this enlightenment – and Cromwell's hubristic optimism as he settles into his role as the most powerful man in England without a crown on his head – he himself has his own lost history, his own myth. A memory system he picks up in Italy involves "shy hiding animals, eyes bright in the undergrowth", alongside people carrying "unlikely objects, St Ursula a crossbow . . . Plato . . . a soup ladle". Each startling image has its place. Later, on a day of "pageantry and living statues" for Anne's coronation, the narrative looks up, and sees that the world's own memory system has come to life:

Fenchurch Street, Leadenhall, Cheap, Paul's Churchyard, Fleet, Temple Bar, Westminster Hall . . . . And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city's uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks' bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled . . . limestone or leaden, metalled or marbled, hooting and gurning and dryheaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.

Tapestries, rings and clothes make their way from place to place and owner to owner, houses change hands, the court is like a pack of cards, the King as changeable as the weather. He is also needily possessive, as is Anne: Cromwell she calls "my man", while the King has "my archbishop" (Cranmer), to complement "My river. My city. My salvation, cut out and embroidered just for me". By the end of the novel, these appointments seem quite secure, but the "strict order" of that memory system has taken its own mighty, feverish tumble into ruin.

Unusually for a novel 650 pages long, Wolf Hall is written in the present tense, which enhances its feverishness. This lends both people and their possessions a dramatic clarity, a presence, which an informed, retrospective viewpoint, left almost entirely to the reader's imagination, might have marred. We are not looking back at a path through time, but trying to find our way onward, and uncertainty reigns. There is a great deal here about Cromwell's family and interrupted, incoherent love life – a soap opera which episodically complicates and beautifies the pattern. The King yearns for a son; many of his highest officers know what it is like to lose a child. In pregnancy, uncertain of the sex of her unborn child, Anne is seen to be drifting "far away", "from terra firma to a marshy tract of land, to a landing stage, to a river where a mist closes over the further bank, and earth and sky are inseparate".

No wonder, with the future misted over and only fanatics sure of their route to God, that most people cling to their roles, deliberately enacting versions of themselves. Wolf Hall is full of portraits from portraits, of people catching their reflections in pageants, plays and song. Erasmus's advice, that one should "arrange one's face" in the morning, offers the necessary mask between courtesy and conviction. Reported conversations require a little role play; Eustache Chapuys, the Emperor Charles V's ambassador, puts in regular cameos, his every gesture being "like something an actor does": "When he thinks, he casts his eyes down, places two fingers to his forehead. When he sorrows, he sighs . . . . He is like a man who has wandered inadvertently into a play . . . and decided to stay and see it through". King Henry has so many sides to his character, "he could have been a travelling player, and leader of his troupe".

In this way, the novel becomes a play, becomes a gallery, conscious of its own framing devices, and is all the richer for being a historiographical as well as a historical novel: we know Cromwell has arrived at the height of his powers when he finds himself looking at Hans Holbein's portrait of him, Wolsey's ring on his finger, "no trace of a smile on the face of his painted self". This is both something that happened and something that comments on what has happened. The same goes for the glimpses, via ekphrasis, of bit players such as Edward Seymour (that "pure hawk's profile") and the astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer ("a dark man . . . with a long humorous mouth"), not to mention the King of France as a randy beanpole: the Frenchman who not only lives next to but owns the brothel.

There are perhaps too many repetitions of the snobbery motif, which has various peers telling Cromwell to his face what they think of him, and an abundance of material that some will read as sheer bagginess, but Wolf Hall is still a finely wrought thing, a worthy successor to the other fine performances from the same author, such as Fludd and A Place of Greater Safety, which are similarly concerned with revolutionary individuals ("religious conflict is the most dangerous force that could be unleashed in a nation", a salon declares in the latter novel). And Thomas Cromwell is a fitting hero for an epic in which bills of attainder do battle with an old world of superstition and chaos.

But that Cromwellian emptiness, while compelling, is also troubling. Could Henry's Master of the Jewel House really suffer from a slow-burning identity crisis? Is this more a distraction from inconsistencies than the ultimate character flaw (or salvation)? Cromwell is supposed to be immune to Anne's charms, for example. This does not stop him gazing at her at one point as much as does Henry, nor can he help imagining "resting his hand upon her shoulder and following with his thumb the scooped hollow between her collarbone and her throat; imagines with his forefinger tracking the line of her breast".

What is he, after all? The murdering spirit captured in Holbein's portrait? Firm but fair, an evangelical soul who would rather that the law spared More and Tyndale alike? Or a sum of historical parts that just won't add up?

Fiction abhors a vacuum. In the TLS, Hilary Mantel once wrote of herself trying to describe herself as a writer for an audience of aspiring writers: "Even as I talk I know I'm making myself up as I go along". Perhaps the same could be said of Cromwell, who would therefore have been made in the image of his creator. He would either make or mar, he is meant to have said on his way to court, in an attempt to reverse Wolsey's fortunes; here, he is very much the maker: "he can shape events, mould them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world".

That is the same edge of the world encountered by those princesses who mated with demons to beget a race of giants, and Wolf Hall is that kind of novel: rephrasing its own phrases, even as Henry shifts shapes or Chapuys strikes another pose. No wonder slippery rephrasing is at the heart of Cromwell's conflict with More. The latter, we are told, would "for a difference in your Greek, kill you" – it might not say "Purgatory" anywhere in the Bible, but the word Tyndale translates as "love", More insists is "charity". Cromwell is more the sort of person to muse on the "equivocal mixture" of a sacramental offering: "this is my blood, this is like my blood, this is more or less somewhat like my blood, do this in commemoration of me".

We are on the edge of the known world, trying to decide if a cup of wine is, in fact, blood. Words. Words. Just words . . . .

Hilary Mantel
651pp. Fourth Estate. £18.99.
978 0 00 723018 1

Michael Caines's pamphlet about the novelist T. F. Powys and his publisher, Chatto & Windus, will be published later this year. He edited the volume on David Garrick in Lives of Shakespearian Actors, published last year.

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