It is safe to say that the reading public in the U.S. and the U.K. virtually lost its head over Wolf Hall, Hillary Mantel’s 2009 Mann Booker Prize winner.
Six pages of reviewers’ encomia from New York to Los Angeles, packed into the front of the book, praise it as one of the finest historical novels ever written. It subsequently made all of the “Best Book of the Year” lists worth mentioning.
Mantel’s stunning fictionalized account follows the rise to power of the enigmatic courtier and politician, Thomas Cromwell, whose career begins to take off in 1527 and who seems virtually unstoppable by 1535.
By the end of this turbulent period in English history a number of Tudor notables, including Thomas More and William Tyndale, have already lost their heads or gone to the stake, and more are on the way.
The book closes with Cromwell’s ascent almost complete, when he is preparing to visit Wolf Hall, the country estate of a bizarre, dysfunctional family that includes the elusive Jane Seymour, one of the ladies-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.
Seymour appears in the background of the novel – the recently widowed Cromwell has his eye on her – but of course we all know that shortly she will became the third and most esteemed of Henry VIII’s six wives. Whereas wife number two, Boleyn, will simply be shortened.
But this is getting a head of the story. In the first hundred pages Cromwell is simply a gopher, a tool for the powerful Thomas Wolsey, cardinal of the Roman church, Lord Chancellor of England, and Henry’s right-hand man and chief fixer.
We know many of these characters already, from Robert Bolt’s stage play and the superlative film made from it, A Man for All Seasons. In that version, the hero is Thomas More, played by Oscar-winner Paul Scofield, while the Cromwell character, played by Leo McKern, is the chief villain.
Mantel doesn’t invert the roles of these two so much as flesh them out, so that we understand how power is gradually corrupting Cromwell, while More, who probably deserved what he got, is not really a villain either, but simply another operator caught up in the extravagant fun-house of Tudor politics.
In the film, we were charmed by the opening scene with Cardinal Wolsey, played in a marvelous cameo appearance by Orson Welles. But Wolsey is seen no more in the film, which is devoted to More and his downfall. Wolf Hall, in contrast, gives us over a hundred closely packed pages in which Wolsey has center stage. These pages alone are a literary tour de force.
I was given Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey to read when I was an undergraduate, most probably in a survey course of Renaissance literature in English. I remember the slim little volume but nothing of what it said, since I was singularly uninterested in a Cardinal who happened to be a consigliore to a king. How weird is that?
Too often in the modern era, in works by professional historians, such secondary characters remain marginal — little noticed, soon forgotten. But when we encounter them in a book such as this, we begin to understand them, and the historical period is illuminated. Mantel shows us Wolsey from every angle, as seen through Cromwell’s eyes, and the effect is stunning.
There are many scenes in which Wolsey and his young apprentice Cromwell are simply sitting there, talking, often late into the night. Wolsey develops by turns into a Falstaff, a Micawber, a character out of Long Day’s Journey into Night. He is mesmerizing, and when he dies, midway in the book, the narrative dims, and there seems little point in reading further.
Yet by this point Mantel has called on her considerable skills of characterization to give us a second memorable character, that of the redoubtable Anne Boleyn. She comes across like a mix of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and certain of Katherine Mansfield’s more desperate heroines – ambitious, calculating, brassy, and extremely competent in getting what she wants.
It is characterization, then, that carries this book, and not plot, since we all know how it is going to end anyway. But what characterizations! Mantel seems to have read everything available about the period, and no figure escapes her keen eye.
One of the most impressively rendered of minor characters is the sulky Mark Smeaton, an accomplished musician – he sings and plays the lute – and a sly dog of a courtier who is passed around among the principals. Smeaton’s problem, like Cromwell’s, is that he is a commoner competing in a rat-race with dozens of titled lords and ladies, all of whom seek the king’s favor, and most of whom will do anything to get it.
Cromwell takes Smeaton’s measure early on, and does not trust him one whit. Smeaten ends up in this book as a hanger-on in Anne Boleyn’s retinue. This will lead, in the sequel, to a most unpleasant end, chiefly due to Cromwell’s machinations.
Two other brilliant characterizations worth noting are those of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, and the chief roadblock in his campaign to achieve connubial bliss with Anne Boleyn; and Catherine’s ugly-duckling daughter, Mary, one of Henry’s three acknowledged children but not the legitimate male heir he so desperately seeks.
(This is the same Mary who will in time win out against all odds and morph into the sovereign known as “Bloody Mary” in the 1550s – although that development is quite outside Mantel’s framework.)
How many times have I read accounts in history books of these two, mother and daughter, without comprehending anything at all about them as human beings? Mantel’s fictionalized account brings both to life. For the first time I could sympathize with their predicament and admire the ways in which they dealt with it. Under siege, both were proud, resentful, stubborn, and, in the final analysis, admirable.
One of the most interesting courtiers of the entire period was the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. For Mantel, Wyatt is dreamy, ineffectual, and ironic. By 1535 he is not yet a player. But we have another book to come, and in the sequel perhaps Wyatt will take on a larger significance.
If I have a criticism of this fine book, it derives from Mantel’s handling of point of view. She sticks with the single character of Thomas Cromwell, which brings many of the scenes into sharp focus. This Cromwell is nothing if not a shrewd observer. Almost nothing escapes him.
But in a sprawling novel of this kind, with a cast of characters so large they must be listed by locale in the front matter, Mantel cannot achieve the kind of three-dimensional interplay that Tolstoy, for example, brings off in each of his two great books, in both of which the omniscient point of view enables him to tell the story from a dozen different perspectives.
Always limited to what Cromwell can observe, but often needing to suggest what other characters are thinking and feeling, Mantel relies on a great deal of dialogue. But in dozens of conversations between Cromwell and the other characters, she fails to clearly identify Cromwell as the speaker/observer. In such passages it is not always easy to know who “he” is, and this causes confusion in the reader’s mind.
Cromwell was not a witness to certain events important to the story, such as the execution of the Biblical translator William Tyndale in 1535, and the earlier execution of the dissenting scholar Thomas Bilney, called “Little Bilney” in the book, at Norwich in 1531.
Historians have much to say about the significance of both executions, but since Cromwell witnessed neither, Mantel wisely does not describe them in detail. The character of Cromwell must be shown as having learned about them only through conversation and written correspondence. Mantel accomplishes this for the most part, but there are still some significant lapses in her handling of Cromwell’s point of view.
In 1967 the film of A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinnemann, won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor – and featured Orson Welles in a striking cameo role as well. You can’t do much better than that. The film is still eminently watchable today, with an excellent script by Robert Bolt, and an all-star cast that includes – in addition to those already named – Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw, Susannah York, John Hurt, and Vanessa Redgrave.
As I finally – and reluctantly – put down my copy of Wolf Hall, I realized that the book will surely be made into a film. I wondered about the contemporary screen actors in the U.K. They must already be queuing up for the auditions to come.
Wolf Hall ends in the autumn of 1535. Cromwell is not yet Lord Chancellor, but Thomas More is gone, and Cromwell is clearly Henry’s fair-haired boy. Anne Boleyn will not make it to the following summer. The entire cast of characters has not even reached the mid-point of the traditional mnemonic device by which schoolchildren remember the six wives of Henry VIII – “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”
But Mantel is working on a sequel. So there’s plenty of action still to come, and the thought of another book about these characters by this accomplished writer will be welcome news to readers everywhere.