Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall": Book Review

Deservedly a Booker Prize winner, this ambitious story conveys a novel of ideas as well as of (half-)familiar figures. It narrates an unlikely hero, a flawed protagonist, a conniving yet moral-minded man at the heart of the court of Henry the Eighth, as he plots to divorce Katherine of Aragon so as to marry Anne Boleyn. Many reviewers have emphasized Thomas Cromwell's role here as bitterly opposed to Thomas More, but Hilary Mantel presents both chancellors as equally obstinate in their convictions. To Cromwell, service and loyalty to his king coincide with his determination to free England from subservience to outmoded ritual and oppressive mindsets; Cromwell recognizes his master's flaws, but he remains faithful to his wishes, and as the king's fortunes increase, so do Cromwell's.

Along the way, we meet many of those who oppose the king's sexual and imperial desires. But Hilary Mantel refuses to caricature Mary Tudor, Katherine, those executed for their Catholic resistance, or the many figures forced to save their lives or their livelihoods as they choose between England and Rome, "the living against the dead" as Henry declares his realm as an empire freed from the Pope. She evokes sympathy with More's victims, those burned or disemboweled for their courage, and she shows how More himself expected more than what he gave those he persecuted and condemned when it came to final mercy. Yet she does not allow More in these pages to become a cartoon, and she carefully explores his own predicament, infuriating as More's refusals are to his foe Cromwell.

This material over five hundred complicated pages holds up astonishingly well. I had to consult the chart of the characters more than once (lots of Marys and Thomases) and Mantel integrates their complex fates, providing contexts-- if often very subtly-- to convey essential information: it all comes from the direct observation, hearsay or indirect reporting of Cromwell himself, a difficult feat to pull off smoothly for an audience so far distant from these tumultuous times, ones so often presented in cartoonish fashion or garbled summation. Technically, this requires patience on the reader's part, as Mantel chooses a perspective that doggedly must be followed, even if angles and distortions enter the vantage point of Cromwell's largely unruffled consciousness. My only reservation is that this exacting method in which the tale is told, via "he" as Cromwell, can be momentarily confusing in the passages when others enter in the same third-person; the movement from one male character to Cromwell and back can be very slight, and demands attention.

The humor and wit may be sparse but all the more welcome. In this era of the rise of individualism and humanism, ideas leap out, for this is a novel not only about characters and alliances and defiances, but about the slow arrival of early modern society. In 1530, Henry hears from Cromwell about the monks: "It cannot always be Lent. What I cannot stomach is hypocrisy, fraud, idleness--their worn-out relics, their threadbare worship, and their lack of invention. When did anything good last come from a monastery? They do not invent, they only repeat, and what they repeat is corrupt. For hundreds of years the monks have held the pen, and what they have written is what we take to be our history, but I do not believe it really is. I believe they have suppressed the history they don't like, and written one that is favorable to Rome." (180) This has the force of eloquence, as spoken by a wise, fervent counselor to a monarch.

The shift in power later comes to mind as Cromwell humiliates a would-be suitor of Anne, Harry Percy: "The world is not run from where he thinks." Not the Scottish borders, let alone London, but from mercantile centers in Antwerp, Florence, even Lisbon. "Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot." (310) Cromwell's eye for details, of fabric from his past as a wool merchant, from his father's trade as a blacksmith, and from Cromwell's negotiations as soldier, businessman, and now diplomat infuse such moments.

Tension permeates this novel, as individual lives are sacrificed and a nation's direction waits upon the dictates of kings and popes, parliaments and supplicants. "The fate of peoples 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 of rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh." (499)

"The king is good to those who think him good." (318) This barbed motto could serve as the theme for Cromwell's unsparing tone and the slogan for those who must remain under the service of their king, or who must oppose him to protect their Catholic, European, or personal interests. By 1535 as this novel ends, Cromwell is at his zenith even as Anne Boleyn begins to waver in her sex appeal to the king who has overturned Christendom in order to wed and bed her. Her marriage has not brought the male heir the king craves; meanwhile we see Elizabeth as "the ginger pig in the cradle," bristly haired and angry.

Staring down a doomed More, Cromwell in the disgraced statesman's cell notes how even in summer, More has drawn the shades, as his books have been taken away. "A handful of hail smacks itself against the window. It startles them both; he gets up, restless. He would rather know what's outside, see the summer in its sad wreckage, than cower behind the blind and wonder what the damage is." (519) More represents the overturned realm of the past, full of obesiance to papism and suppression of thought; Cromwell for all his faults seeks to illuminate the possibility of a freer world where a Bible in English may be read, ideas considered without imprisonment, and where people begin to learn to think for themselves.

Still, Cromwell ends this novel in his own limitations, even as he is to follow the king away from London, the day of More's execution. Cromwell will seek out the Seymours who live at Wolf Hall; their daughter Jane has caught Cromwell's eye as a lady-in-waiting in the Boleyn employ. That episode and the next five years, it is to be hoped, will provide a sequel as Cromwell himself learns the vagaries and passing fancies of the monarch whom he seeks to please. (Posted to Amazon US 12-23-10 & 2-20-11)

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