Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I sleep too little, I work too hard. I have ambitions – material, professional, artistic – that go largely unrealised and spend most of my time doing what Ian Dury summarised in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll as “business you don't like”. Life is hard and full of compromises and yet I wake up and face it day after day. Why do I do it? I make a good wage but I'm not really fussed by fancy stuff or expensive crap, and I reckon I could be just as happy – happier even! – dreaming my life away sitting in a public library in a malodorous alcoholic fug. Yet, I go on. What drives me to it, and keeps me going back for more?

These are the questions that literature asks us to consider and – at it's best – answers for us. The purpose of literature (I think) is to tell us truths that are not easily or convincingly conveyed in other ways, things that might sound banal or straight forward when articulated directly, but that inform our whole beings. To really know them, to really understand we have to see them in action, to be shown not told (to paraphrase that crusty old rubric) how life is.

While Wolf Hall is obvisouly fiction, Thomas Cromwell is not a fictional character: he's a real guy who lived a real life that, I assume, closely parallels the events described in the novel.We talk a lot about “characterisation” as critics or in writing classes, but really we have only the foggiest notion what it is. Writing guides give all sorts of advice about it – from the stupid to the incomprehensible – but when you see it, when you really see it, a character in a book can seem more real than anyone you know. A great book shows us someone in all their aspects and makes us understand who they are, and in so doing it shows us ourselves.This can be a scourge, as in satire or horror, and absolution, as in tragedies, I guess, or, in a more ancient mode, as a guide to living. I think this last is what Wolf Hall is trying to do.

Thomas Cromwell
He gets this portrait (by Hans Holbein) done in part V.
Cromwell had a hard childhood, even considering the beastliness of life for the poor in sixteenth century England. He has no mother, and his father - Walter, an innkeeper and blacksmith - is not much to speak of, and invetiably he runs away to seek his fortune. He becomes a soldier, but learns quickly that real fortunes are made on the markets, not the battlefield. He works hard, he deals straight with others, he gets ahead.
He marries to his advantage, as all unions seem to be commercial enterprises in Cromwell's world, but he loves his wife and finds great solace in family life. Family means everything to Cromwell, and he's happy to spread his paternal embrace around a small army of waifs and strays that come his way and in whom he spots potential. The scenes around the family are sweet and often sad. It's world where death is common and often quick and brutal. The deaths of Cromwell's beloved wife and daughters are shocking and moving – they almost moved me to tears – and they keep coming back to him in times of stress or joy.

Cardinal Wolsey by Sampson Strong.
All through these scenes, Walter Cromwell lurks in the back ground as a lesson learned. Thomas's generosity and concern stand in defiance of Walter's violence, and this love of family is his key defining feature, I think. He struggles and strives to create a stable kingdom because he has this strong paternal urge, to make everyone's lives good and happy, to stop the strong preying on the weak, as his father toook out his frustrations on his little son.

His early employment with Cardinal Wolseyis where he learns about the world, and Wolsey is perhaps  his true father. Wolsey teaches him directly how to deal with the King, but, indirectly, through his own foibles, how to please one's master while pleasing or protecting onself, and when Wolsey falls, Cromwell's reaction is both loyal and pragmatic.

While he seems happy enough with the feudal system of manors and vassalage, this hatred of exploitation feeds his argument with the church of Rome. He's travelled and seen the reality of the supposed semi-divine pontiffs, grasping men who work only for their own advnatge. He's read Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament and knows that it says nothing about Popes or saints or monasteries or tithes. He wants to see people deal honestly with God, to know the truth of what he says, not the version spread around by the church hierarchy to shore up their own privilege. He's a devout man, but his devotion is to truth and grace, not to the gilded ritual that's grown around the church.

Sir Thomas More
Also by Holbein.
Cromwell is contrasted with various other figures in the book, most importantly, I think, Sir Thomas More. I've never seen or read A Man For All Seasons, but I understand that in that More is portrayed as a brave man of principle who won't be brow beaten by the authorities into traducing his beliefs. There's something of this in Mantel's protrayal, but she emphasises More's pig-headedness and the harm it causes his loved ones. He's a pretty unpleasant character all told, brutally persecuting Tyndale and his cohorts, and generally being a bit of a shit at home. Much is made of More's hasty marriages after his wive's die, characterising them as domestic arrangements to keep his household together with no love involved, and this is contrasted with Cromwell's own delay in remarrying after the death of Liz Wyks – his love was such that he can't bring himself to do it, and an affair with his wife's sister is dealt with forgivingly as a kind of mourning.

Marriage is also at the centre of Cromwell's relationship with Henry VIII, as he tries to wrangle things to allow Henry to device Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Far from the simple love of Cromwell and Liz, Henry's passion for Anne is a kind of twisted game for her and something like a huntsman's pursuit for him, motivated by lust and a desire to satisfy the symbolic (rather than pragmatic) need of a male heir. Henry's disdain for his daughters stands in opposition to Cromwell's deep love and even respect for his own, and the treatment of the bastard Duke of Richmond is unlike Cromwell's own easy attitude to his cousins, nephews and wards.

Good King Hal!
Yep, Holbein again.
But Henry is also father of the country, and so Cromwell's advice is vital for the running of the realm, and Cromwell believes sincerely that Henry's rightful place is as leader of the nation. He pushes the King to act with mercy and restraint, and in fact Henry comes off as a good egg, on whole, too. He's somewhat petulant and spoiled, but Mantel seems to feel that he has a good heart. However, his overweening desire for a legitimate male heir is eating away at him, and there are clear hints of trouble to come.

Anne Boleyn
Late Elizabethan copy of a portrait probably by
our old friend HH.
I admit, that when I was considering reading this, I was kind of intimidated. I loved Mantel's Beyond Black, but that's about ghosts and wotnot, which I love. This is a fat book about a period of history that I'm not especially interested in, and I'm not the Booker-prize type of reader, by and large (or at least I don't think of myself that way). But I found this utterly compelling right from the start. The present tense prose is never intrusive, and takes us inside the Cromwell with an amazing lightness of touch yet depth of perception as it were. I kept thinking of how the present tense prose to The Quantum Thief kept the characters at a such a distance while I read this. The difference, I think, is the time spent – Rajaniemi was forever hopping on to the next thing, and the nature of his thriller plot meant certain things had to be glossed over in the name of suspense. I slower, more contemplative approach such as is on show here would have benefited that book.

This is an instructive book in all the best ways. I feel cleverer and better informed on history having read it. I feel like I have learned important lessons on principle and pragmatism, about keeping the important things in sight while letting the unimportant stuff go. More than anything, it has reinforced for me that the most important thing that a man has is his family. It's our families that bring us our greatest him pleasure, it's our families that gives sense to all our endeavours and it is for them that put on my tie every morning and struggle, in my modest way, to make the world a better place.


  1. I loved Beyond Back too. It showed restraint. The set-up could have been Shaun Hutson but the treatment wasn't. I also enjoyed Fludd and the Giant O'Brien.

    But I'm not sure about historical novels. It's the looking at these things through modern eyes that gets me. I want it to be strangely foreign as well as human and I always worry that I'm not truly getting the past. Perhaps I should read period literature instead, that has certainly been working since I've been looking at the 30s.

    So I haven't read Wolf Hall. I read Pale Fire instead. It was functional.

  2. Yeah, Beyond Black was one of the creepiest books I read for years, but also incredibly penetrating and true and real. An amazing piece of work although I felt she let everyone off a little at the end, like she felt bad about giving everyone a rough ride and so gave them all happy endings.

    The "historical fiction" question is an interesting one. I don't think there's any overt contemporary paralells being made, in that kind of Crucible way (and I gather A Man For All Seasons is more like that, or More like that ho ho) but Thomas Cromwell seems like a pretty groovy dude given the typical actions of people in those days. I'm sure that part of what's being explored is the change from an ancient world of deference through ignorance and rule through might to a more modern world of knowledge (of the Bible, inparticular, but everything generally) and trade.

    I'm no expert (to say the least) but it felt authentic to me. Cromwell is properly Christian and for all his cynicism and pragmatism seems to genuinely believe in the rule of kings (overseen by parliament, of course).

    Pale Fire is one of my most favourite books, but isn't it set in the fifties...?

  3. Oh, also in Beyond Black, I read it at the same time, more or less, as Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, and I was struck by the similarity between Pimm's relationship with his Dad and hangers on, and Alison's relationship with her spirit "pals".

    I think there's a very similar theme of memory and how we're shaped by the people from our past running through WH, too, but I'm not sure I quite got that across in the above. Something that I really liked was the way that Thomas More was for ever assessing people's clothes with the eyes of an old cloth trader. Very often he thinks he could tell then exactly what their clothing is worth.


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