A Review of “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel

The English are a people, I’ve found, who are obsessed with kings and kingship, whether positively or negatively (one has only to look at the media hype surrounding the birth of the royal baby and the jokes on twitter about the same). Englishmen love their kings and queens, but are also extremely critical of them – most of which is expressed as underplayed sardonic British humour. This is why, I think, writers keep on dipping into British history and coming up with erudite historical tomes, steamy potboilers and seriously written novels which shine new light on hitherto unexplored areas. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning effort, Wolf Hall, belongs to the last category.

If one wants to choose an era in British history which is guaranteed to pull readers in, what other period than the Tudor age? The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain has this to say:

The age of the Tudors has left its impact on Anglo-American minds as a watershed in British history. Hallowed tradition, native patriotism, and post-imperial gloom have united to swell our appreciation of the period as a true golden age. Names alone evoke a phoenix-glow – Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary Stuart among the sovereigns of England and Scotland; Wolsey, William Cecil, and Leicester among the politicians; Marlowe, Shakespeare, Hilliard, and Byrd among the creative artists. The splendours of the court of Henry VIII, the fortitude of Sir Thomas More, the making of the English Bible, Prayer Book, and Anglican Church, the development of Parliament, the defeat of the Armada, the Shakespearian moment, and the legacy of Tudor domestic architecture – these are the undoubted climaxes of a simplified orthodoxy in which genius, romance, and tragedy are superabundant.

It is this “genius, romance and tragedy” which draw chroniclers again and again into the court of Henry VIII, inhabited by a lecherous king, a scheming queen, ladies of flexible virtue and gentlemen with ulterior motives. We are all familiar with Henry and his desperate attempt to produce a male heir; the clever and scheming yet ultimately ill-fated Ann Boleyn; Sir Thomas More, man of letters and spiritual leader; the voluptuous Mary Boleyn, an “easy armful” (to borrow Hilary Mantel’s words); Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s right-hand man till his fall from grace. A writer just has to dip his/ her hand in and draw out any of these characters, and the story would be already half-written, one feels.

However, Hilary Mantel does not take this easy path. She draws out a shadowy character, enters into his mind, and shows us the Tudor court through a totally unfamiliar pair of eyes. The character is Thomas Cromwell, assistant to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. A commoner without any aristocratic pedigree. The son of a blacksmith whose only strength are the bulldog tenacity of the survivor and a native cunning, honed to perfection during the period he wandered from country to country as a teenaged exile, on the run from his murderous father.

The story of Henry VIII is common knowledge to anybody with a moderate understanding of history. A lothario of sorts, this much-married gentleman went through six wives in the desperate effort to produce a male heir, to make the kingdom safe from usurpers. Out of the six marriages, the one to Anne Boleyn produced such a schism that the church was fragmented – the Church of England, with the King as its head, split off from the Pope. Almost overnight, Catholicism was dead in England.

However, the careful student of history will notice that this was only one of the many pretexts – the world was already pissed off with Popery, who appropriated the Bible as the sole property of the Church, to be read and interpreted by the clergy only. The worship of God was only possible through the mediation of these men of cloth, many of whom engaged in acts of extreme debauchery, kept mistresses, and sired bastards all over the place. The time for a change was nigh, and it was sparked off through Martin Luther’s fiery rhetoric in Germany. Henry’s personal rebellion was only a part of the big picture.

***

By early 16th Century, Martin Luther had set the Protestant Reformation in motion in Germany. He claimed that the Bible was the only true repository of divine wisdom, accessible to all; the priesthood had no role. Salvation was possible only through belief in Christ as the redeemer, and not through paying money to the clergy. Protestantism swept Europe. The Catholic Church was shaking in its foundations, when Henry decided that he wanted his marriage (a marriage of convenience) to his elder brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, annulled on the basis that it was illegal in the first place. But everybody knew the real reason: Henry wanted a male heir, which was impossible for the Queen who was now past child-bearing age, and also because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he was head over heels in love.

The Church was not very amenable to the King’s demand. The pope cannot support a man who wants to cast away his lawful wife to marry his mistress! Moreover, the Spanish Emperor’s wrath was also to be considered. Archbishop Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, who was also the Papal legate, tried and failed – leading to his fall from grace and death in disgrace. Thomas More who followed him as Lord Chancellor was loath to entertain the temporal ruler’s demands over the dictates of the spiritual realm. Henry finally realised that to have his way, he would have to take control of his kingdom as no king has done before.

Enter Thomas Cromwell…

This relative nobody shot to prominence as King Henry’s right-hand man in this troubled times. All over England, heretics were being tortured and burned by the Church: in Europe, Catholicism and Protestantism were going at it with hammer and tongs. Deriving the king’s power from the mythical Lucius I of England, Cromwell and the Parliament passed a series of statutes which effectively made the ruler supreme sovereign of both spiritual and temporal activities in England. It was now treason not to accept the Crown’s supremacy; those who were the persecutors in the name of God, found themselves persecuted for treason. The boot was on the other foot.

***

Wolf Hall narrates the events described in the above paragraphs, while trying to inhabit the mind of Thomas Cromwell. I say “trying to” purposefully, because I do not think Hilary Mantel has been wholly successful in her endeavor. At the end of the novel, one is still left with a doubt as to what makes this man tick – a huge minus in a narrative which is primarily stream-of-consciousness. Cromwell’s overarching ambition and manipulative capabilities are well-etched, but the man himself remains a mystery (other than his contempt of the official church and his minions, which may be a possible motive for his actions).

However, other than the protagonist, there are some fine character sketches. Henry VIII himself, pompous, idiosyncratic, sentimental yet ruthless; Sir Thomas More, cruel in his obsession with religion; the various dukes and noblemen and other royal hangers-on, intent only on self-advancement; Mary Boleyn, willing to use her feminine charms without inhibition for self-advancement; and last but not least, the seductive Anne Boleyn with her single-minded ambition to become Queen. As the novel progresses, these characters grow and obsess us, which is a sign of good writing.

But Hilary Mantel’s style is difficult. There is a pudding in our part of the world which is very tasty but sticks to the palate, so eating it is a chore: the author’s prose reminded me of it. Most of the time, Cromwell is mentioned simply as “he”, which made it difficult to recognise who was referred to, especially while a group conversation was being described. However, the stream-of –consciousness method has an advantage that reveries can be inserted at any time, and the author can speak through her protagonist. Even though not essential to the tale at hand, some such interior monologues are very beautiful. I cannot resist quoting one.

In the forest you may find yourself lost, without companions. You may come to a river which is not on a map. You may lose sight of your quarry, and forget why you are there. You may meet a dwarf, or the living Christ, or an old enemy of yours; or a new enemy, one you do not know until you see his face appear between the rustling leaves, and see the glint of his dagger. You may find a woman asleep in a bower of leaves. For a moment, before you don’t recognise her, you will think she’s someone you know.

This is the world Thomas Cromwell (and I suspect, many of our modern politicians) inhabit.

***

Even though Ms. Mantel does not do anything to redeem the image of Anne Boleyn, some words she speaks are suggestive.

Anne says, ‘I am Jezebel. You, Thomas Cromwell, are the priests of Baal.’ Her eyes are alight. ‘As I am a woman, I am the means by which sin enters this world. I am the Devil’s gateway, the cursed ingress. I am the means by which Satan attacks man, whom he was not bold enough to attack, except through me…’

This passage left me wondering about the numerous political scandals in the modern world where beautiful women have played a part, and kind of attention media lavished on them, stripping and raping them through words and unspoken innuendos. No, the world has not changed that much, as far as men’s thinking is concerned.

***

P.S. While I was reading the book, the British Royal Baby came into the world at the same time as Elizabeth was born in the story. Coincidence? Maybe…

At least, the modern-day prince will not have to fear the assassin with his hidden knife – only the paparazzi with his hidden camera. Thank God for small favours.

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