Wherein we examine books everyone else checked out ages ago
by Hilary Mantel
674 pages, Fourth Estate
*This review is of the audio version, narrated by Simon Slater*
Review by Pat Black
I was a little intimidated by Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning slab seemed to be everywhere, all at once, for most of this decade. A TV adaptation starring Baftabator actors hoovered up awards and applause while the book was falling off three-for-two tables in clumps. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, but opted for the audio version rather than the book. At my current pace, I suspect I would have been reading the paper version until the grave.
Even with someone reading it aloud to me, I feared I’d get swallowed up by the details. Historical novels have to be well-researched, and you’re required to show your working. So I expected a descriptive avalanche of castles, disease, drapes and hideous food, which is probably not the best thing to take my mind off the drive to work.
I needn’t have worried. Wolf Hall is rich, but it’s a smooth meal. In an insane alternative universe where I’m teaching a writing class instead of ball-aching about books here, I’d use Wolf Hall as the perfect example of how to put in “just enough” detail to keep folk interested – a flare of jewellery, a swish of silk, a clank of armour – but not much more. It’s chiefly about dialogue, events, people, and gossip – good storytelling, in other words. Elmore Leonard would have approved.
If you’re the type of person who winces when English kings and queens come up on quiz shows, then the book is an education, though never a chore.
This is Thomas Cromwell’s story. Viewed as a sinister figure in English history until a recent reappraisal – this book is part of that – Cromwell came from nothing to become a lawyer, then a member of parliament, then King Henry VIII’s senior counsel and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had no name, title or property, and when we first meet him he has literally crawled from the mud at Putney.
Although he is scoffed at by the noblemen he orbits, Cromwell is clever, pragmatic, educated, perfectly mannered and, best of all, discreet. He makes himself indispensable to Cardinal Wolsey – at one point, England’s most powerful statesman – then to the king himself, all without making much of a noise or a fuss.
He’s a guy who always knows a guy who knows a guy. He’s also tellingly skilled with a blade. He can hint lightly or heavily, as he pleases, but he’s not averse to cracking a skull or kicking a door in. Cromwell’s natural habitat is the shadows.
“You… you person, you,” one duke sneers at him.
Cromwell’s king, and the time of his reign, came to define a country. Against the background of the Protestant reformation, Henry split the Church of England, and English sovereignty, from the Catholic Church in Rome. It’s hard to escape the notion that this was all because he fancied Anne Boleyn and wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, whose principal fault as a wife was failing to provide a son.
Henry is consistently fascinating in the same way as a child running around a garden party with a chainsaw. Wielding terrifying authority, and yet an almost complete arsehole, the monarch requires a steady hand at the tiller. Cromwell is the man for the job. Henry is bright enough to recognise that, noting Cromwell’s competence and unswerving support of his first master, Cardinal Wolsey, even after the cleric falls out of favour.
Cromwell speaks to all the major players of his time as he becomes a person of rank and influence in his own right. Inevitably, he makes a full cast of enemies as a result, including Sir Thomas More.
Cromwell is always referred to as “he”, never addressed by name unless it comes from the mouth of another character. It suits his shadowy persona very well. But Cromwell sometimes takes on the guise of a hero in this tale – interceding and attempting to save the lives of plotters, calumniators and heretics who seek to impede Henry’s progress to supreme authority at the head of his own church in his own land. This includes deadly enemies – and so Cromwell employs the morality of a comic book superhero in a tale of real people in real times. It was a little too cute, but it does put us on Cromwell’s side.
What are we to make of the book politically? Our sympathies naturally lie with Cromwell. It’s great to see him pulling the strings like some Reformation era Michael Corleone, taking the blows and slights until he brings events under his control. Not a few of his enemies have their necks split before the end.
But he is also driven by a sense of devotion and duty, the kind of service that the privileged expect from underlings, whether talented or not. In terms of intellect and guile, Cromwell is the master of just about everyone he meets. But he can only go so far in life, owing to the system he operates in. A question you must ask yourself is: how is it fair that a man like Cromwell, so clearly suited to power and authority, is obliged to bend his knees to a hereditary crown?
There is a heavy anticlerical bent to Cromwell’s thoughts and feelings. He’s not much of a man for churches, and certainly not a great fan of public burnings carried out in god’s name. Another memorable “just enough information” part comes when Cromwell recalls the first time he saw a heretic barbecued, and the woman’s relatives tidying up afterwards with brush and shovel.
Mantel is from a Catholic background and she has said negative things about that, so it’s easy to read anti-Catholic sentiment in her novel about a country kicking out the influence of the papacy.
That’s the easy interpretation. What fascinates me more is what I see as a latent anti-monarchical attitude.
It is a curious disease of the English in particular that some will spit blood like Bruce the Shark at the very idea of the Roman Catholic church, and yet in the same breath they will toast the health of a family who wields supreme power in the state and unimaginable riches through land ownership simply as a result of their birth and breeding. This paradox is evident in Mantel’s Cromwell, who couldn’t contrast any more sharply with clodding oafs like the Duke of Norfolk. Then there’s the king himself, happier pissing around with his horses in the woods than attending to his solemn duty, with Cromwell scurrying around afterwards, metaphorically wiping his arse for him.
Mantel does explore these questions, but in a very careful way. She was more forthright in recently published comments expressing sympathy for the Duchess of Cambridge – living her entire life in the public eye as a hobby horse for the British public, enduring constant scrutiny at best, and potential threats to her life at worst.
This seemed like honest sympathy to me, but it raised eyebrows in the press. Mantel must have anticipated that reaction, and it made me think that there’s more going on in her grand history play than blind devotion to royalty.
Whatever the case may be, it is worth noting that Hilary Mantel was made a Dame. Maybe any attention is good attention when it comes to promoting the British Monarchy as a global brand.
Like much else he encounters, Cromwell’s attitude towards the church and its potentates is one of simple utility: How can it help him – and his master – succeed? The same applies to armies, and large-scale usury. In one memorable passage, Cromwell muses on how the click of an abacus is more important than the rattle of a thousand sabres; how the greatest power of all lies not in arms, but in the pen which scratches the signature on a bill.
“I heard you were a ruffian,” one chopping block-bound enemy notes to Cromwell, near the end. He does not disagree.
Cromwell’s journey is all the more exciting because in those days, when you had power and influence, you were playing for the highest stakes of all. Never mind some brief humiliation on Twitter and a P45 - upset the wrong guy in public life back then, and you could end up with your head decorating his front gates.
Wolf Hall made me think that we’re closer to people who lived in those times than we realise. In terms of matters of the heart, pettiness and ambition tending to bloodthirstiness, the difference is nil. Perhaps what truly separates us from our ancestors striking flint in caves is not just access to food and tools, but the written word – and its most powerful application, enforceable laws. Mantel acknowledges this in her examination of how early printing and dissemination of literature was viewed with suspicion and fear in Henry’s reign. I wonder where our current relationship with the written word and its ready availability through electronic devices will lead us? I assume it’ll be bad by default… but maybe not. Perhaps instead of fake news and poison-fanged comment sections, there’s a more utopian future for the written word in the digital age, something just beyond the horizon we can’t see yet.
That’s not to say Wolf Hall is heavy going. Happily, the story unfolds like a soap opera (in this regard, it reminded me of War And Peace). There are a few clandestine meetings, plenty of overheard gossip, and even one corny moment involving a knife in the dark that felt like an escapee from melodrama.
This got me thinking about the liberties that are taken of necessity in stories about real people who lived real lives. Mantel took five years to research this book – five years, man – cross-checking who spoke to whom on what day and matching dates with official records. But the dialogue is still basically made up. The dots connect beautifully but it’s still all… well, fiction.
There’s about 24 hours of listening in this book, all provided by the splendid Simon Slater. My attention rarely wavered in all that time. Wonder if any voice actors have ever tried to record big novels all in one go, as a bet?
Whether read on the page or performed aloud, Wolf Hall is an impressive, even mighty piece of work. I may need a wee break before tackling its sequel, though – about five years, say.
There’s one big problem with historical fiction - unless you’ve taken a dressage side-step involving zombies, vampires or Mel Brooks, there’s no avoiding those spoilers.