I have finished the best book I’ve read this year, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. No wonder it won the Booker Prize. It’s a big novel, 650 pages, densely populated with a wealth of characters from all walks of society, basically covering those six years from King Henry VIII’s reign that saw his sexually motivated break from the Roman Catholic Church.
The novel begins with the young Thomas Cromwell brutally beaten by his blacksmith Father. He ran away to the Continent. We next meet him as the 40-year- old chief aide to Cardinal Wolsey. What happened in the intervening years is only hinted at throughout the rest of the novel – a soldier in the French army, a financier in Italy, a love affair in the Low Countries.
Henry badly wanted a son. His wife Katherine of Aragon had been briefly married to his elder brother Arthur before that young prince's early death. She had borne Henry one daughter, Mary, but had a series of miscarriages. Henry had convinced himself the marriage was illegal and immoral and therefore cursed. He wanted a divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn who cleverly played hard to get.
Henry’s concern is understandable. The bloody Wars of the Roses were fresh in people’s minds and the confused royal bloodlines meant there were many potential claimants for the crown. But Katherine’s nephew Charles V had captured Rome and the despite all of Wolsey’s clever manoeuvring the annulment of the wedding was not forthcoming. Wolsey’s fate was sealed.
The first part of the novel centres around the relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey, his mentor – a brilliant portrayal of self-serving diplomatic games, verbal jousts, petty quarrels and endless jockeying for position and power. Cromwell’s wife and daughter both die of the sweating sickness. Ordinary London life continues, rich, bleak, and comical. Mantel is marvellous at the minutiae of history as well as its grand sweep.
Cromwell – subtle, rational and cleverly manipulative, (a most unlikely hero) – becomes Henry’s chief adviser. If the Pope will not grant the divorce England will go alone. Henry and Anne marry. The breach with Rome means an oath of loyalty to the king. Thomas More, Chancellor England, will not take it. The last part of the novel deals with the test of wills between the two Thomas’s. And ends with More’s execution.
Mantel tips received wisdom on its head. I, for one, have long perceived More as a hero. Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons fixed that image in my head. Mantel portrays him as self-flagellating Catholic zealot who bullies his wife, and tortures Protestants. There is a cruel scene in which Cromwell is dining with More’s household. The conversation is in Latin, which More’s wife does not speak. He makes rude remarks about her, which she cannot understand.
The last time the two men talk sums up Cromwell’s attitude. Throughout the novel he is referred to as ‘he’ a stylistic approach that enables the character to occupy centre-stage. ‘A handful of hail smacks against the window. It startles them both, he gets up, restless. He would rather know what’s outside, see the summer in all its sad blowing wreckage, than cower behind the blind and wonder what the damage is.’
The contrast between the two men tips the scales towards Cromwell. He is rational, against supersition, modern, upwardly mobile, questioning the old order, seeking to get things done, a patriot and a citizen of the world. He knows his New Testament. Historian Elton argued Cromwell founded modern government with its emphasis upon law and financial administration. Mantel would agree. At the same time she presents the man in very human terms. He admits to not being good in bed. When a servant confesses to being ‘violently in love’ with a girl, Cromwell asks ‘how does that feel?’
The book’s ending took me by surprise. I had been led through the arc of ascent. But the decline? It’s like the movie Psycho – not even halfway through and the heroine suddenly removed. Cromwell had wondered about a relationship with Jane Seymour from Wolf Hall – one of Anne’s ladies in waiting. But he had given the prospect away. The novel is called Wolf Hall and the place has not even been visited. But the king plans to call there and so does Cromwell. The game is moving into a different phase. Mantel’s skill is such that it seems appropriate to end this way.
Anne will lose her head and two wives later, Cromwell his. But that is another story. Apparently Mantel plans a sequel.
The novel represents England at the cusp of the modern era. Henry’s actions will help usher in the nation states of contemporary Europe. The Common Market hints at the end of that era.
‘The fate of nations is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater, her hand pulling close the bed curtains.’