2009’s Man Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, is now available in paperback. The nearly universally praised historical novel is set in sixteenth century Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII. Ripe for fiction, it is a period fraught with political upheaval, religious turmoil, and sexual intrigue, and at the center of it all for a long period was the protagonist of Mantel’s novel, Henry’s oft vilified political advisor, Thomas Cromwell. Not only is he the central figure in the book, it is through his eyes that the events of the novel are described.
If, however, what you know about Cromwell comes from something like Robert Bolt’s popular 1960 play, A Man For All Seasons or even Showtime’s recent series, The Tudors, you are in for a big surprise. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell, is not only the central figure, he is an out and out heroic figure. This is not a case of a villain hero, an ironic characterization that the reader is supposed to see through. It is not a case of something akin to Milton’s presumably accidental heroic portrait of Satan in Paradise Lost or Robert Browning’s defenses of the indefensible in some of his dramatic monologues. It is not even a case of mistaken sympathy for an unreliable first person narrator. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell is a good person, probably much maligned by history.
In a 2009 Guardian Books Podcast, she says as much. Wolf Hall is intended as revisionist history. It is at least in part as much an attempt to rehabilitate Cromwell’s reputation as it is to tell a good story. This Cromwell is loyal. He starts in politics as a legal aide to Henry’s first political aide, Cardinal Wolsey, and remains faithful to him even when he is toppled from power. He is compassionate; he tries to make Princess Mary’s situation more bearable when she is separated from Katherine at Anne Boleyn’s insistence. Indeed, he is always going out of his way to help even his enemies. He is generous; he takes in orphans and feeds the poor. He is good company, even those like the Emperor’s ambassador who are political opponents, speak well of him.
This is not to say that Cromwell is not a political schemer looking out for what is best for him and his family. Clearly he understands the world in which he lives and how to make his way in it. He is a pragmatist. He understands what he needs to do to prosper, and he does it. He doesn’t let moral scruples get in the way. “There are some people in this world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person.” In this, he is contrasted with Thomas More. While More is conventionally pictured as a saintly figure, in Wolf’s Hall he is seen as an inflexible zealot. When in power, is shown as cruel and relentless in pursuit of apostates. He tortures them into confessions and has little compunction about horrifying punishment. He is mean spirited in the treatment of most of his family, especially his wife — unlike Cromwell, who is pictured as a model family man, much in the modern model.
Although Wolf Hall is unmistakably Cromwell’s story, it is a historical account on a grand scale and it has an appropriate cast of characters, a cast of thousands, to steal the old Hollywood cliché. There is hardly a figure of any importance in the period left out, but more importantly the portraits are as decisively painted as any of those painted by Hans Holbein (who is himself not neglected). Whether it is major players like the coquettish, conniving Anne and the pampered imperious Henry, or day players like the visionary prophetess, Elizabeth Barton, or the earthy other Boleyn girl, Mary, characters are delineated with fine lined clarity and wit.
And while the novel takes place in the sixteenth century, Mantel’s prose style is quite modern. Her dialogue is not the kind of thing you will find in a Shakespearean play. Her characters speak in a modern idiom. She does her best to make the modern reader comfortable amongst the Tudors and she does it with success. This is not a book that will bog down the general reader in a morass of historical minutiae. The large cast of characters may be daunting at first, but there is a lengthy dramatis personae at the beginning of the book as well as a Tudor and York genealogy that should help even the complete novice.
Wolf Hall is a novel that is truly deserving of all the praise it has garnered, but there is one question, in my mind at least, and that is the title. For a good many pages, I, for one, had no idea what Wolf Hall was or what it referred to. When it was finally identified as the family estate of the Seymours, I now knew what it is, but I still don’t know that I understand why it is the title of this novel. Jane Seymour and other members of the family do appear in the novel. Cromwell appears to have some sort of romantic interest of his own in the young girl, and as the book ends, just after the death of More, he is planning a five-day visit to the place, but this is hardly enough to explain the title. There must be a reason. Mantel is too good a writer not to have something in mind. I wish I were smart enough to figure it out (I hope it’s not so obvious that I look like a fool not to have seen it). Perhaps there will be an explanation in the sequel that is promised on the way.