Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

See also Bring Up The Bodies and The Mirror and the Light

28 July 2010
First 100-odd pages – to the flashback when he sees his father again
I’m not sure about anything, and I’m assuming that’s how Hilary Mantel wants it. Even in the opening section describing the incident in 1500 that sends the young boy away from Putney, we have to piece information together. Sure, we’re familiar with pain, and bullying, and the sad little strategies that families use to cope with a father’s unforgivable behaviour. But why are we starting here, with this boy who doesn’t even know how old he is, dazed and bleeding on the cobbles? He doesn’t know exactly what happened, and neither do we. Later we’re adrift in the politics of the 1520s, and the fact that we all know about Henry VIII and his wives doesn’t help much because Mantel runs at everything obliquely. Most of what we get is second-hand, and we see events that we know will eventually lead to the annulment of Henry’s first marriage through the eyes of those surrounding the king. Cromwell – at least we know who he is now – currently works for Cardinal Wolsey and has never even met the king.

But I’m jumping the gun. And I’m telling you what’s happening (as far as we know it) far more directly than Mantel herself does. In the chapter after we’ve seen the effects of the young Thomas having been beaten up by his father – typically, we don’t witness the event itself – we’re in medias res for the second time, 27 years later. There’s a conversation going on between Thomas Cromwell, who we come to realise is the boy grown up, and the self-satisfied, confident Cardinal we come to realise is Wolsey. They’re discussing – what else would they be discussing? – money. Cromwell is back from Yorkshire having done the groundwork for the closure or amalgamation of monasteries there. England is a Catholic country in this universe, of course, and the repercussions are going to rumble on, long before the dissolutions. But for now, it’s clear that Wolsey is complacently sure of his status, and that Cromwell is his hugely capable fixer.

The whole novel is told in the present tense and, running alongside the cynical Realpolitik that appears to be these people’s bread and butter, the immediacy of the narration brings them into a political world we seem to recognise as somehow familiar. And Mantel doesn’t have them coming out with 16th Century phraseology: their language is as modern-sounding as their attitudes. It reminded me of novel written earlier in the decade, Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings, in which characters in The Iliad behave in ways we recognise from the politics of our own time. I came to think of one character in that novel as Peter Mandelson, and I can feel the same sort of thing happening as I read this one. (Is Unsworth’s written in the present tense? I should check.)

Another disorienting thing is the way Mantel plays about with time. We get ‘An Occult History of Britain’ going back millennia, to set the whole sorry tale in the kind of mythic context the Tudors were fond of. On a less cosmic scale, we dodge back to Thomas’s childhood – his miserable life before he ran away, the first meeting with his father long after his return to England – and we’ve also moved forwards and backwards during the second half of the 1520s. Wolsey is at the height of his power when we first meet him, but very soon we’re plunged – Mantel likes a plunge – two years into the future, and the traumatic ejection from his palace after he’s fallen from grace. We get the awkwardness of the hasty move to Esher, with Cromwell forced into Mr Fix-it mode – and we get an unexpected reference to a loss in his family life. It’s only later in the novel (but a year or two earlier in all their lives), while Wolsey is away on the abortive European mission that leads to the waning of his influence, that we hear about how Cromwell’s wife died. (Like us, he hears about it second-hand: she dies only hours after waking up feeling slightly unwell, while he is out and about sniffing for whatever might be interesting or useful….)

But what about events? Wolsey is a politician with the ear of the king, and his power is firmly based on his influence within the Catholic Church. Catholicism is crucially important in the novel, and Wolsey’s worldliness derives from his complete understanding of how he is only safe as long as he knows his way around Vatican politics, the other cardinals in Europe, and even heads of state. Meanwhile, Cromwell is cynical about the realities of the 16th Century Church. Like any clever-minded traveller, his eyes are open to the everyday corruption of indulgences and worthless relics with cast-iron provenances. But at a more everyday level Mantel gives us enough references to confessions and rosaries – to say nothing of the eye-watering richness of Wolsey’s vestments – to remind us that early 16th Century England was as Catholic as any other country in Europe.

The point is, obviously, that all this is about to change. Whoever is in the ascendancy now is either going to have to adapt, or be prepared for the consequences: Mantel has given us that nudging reminder in the preview we’ve had of Wolsey’s ejection from his palace, and we know we haven’t seen anything yet. We’ve had Henry’s dissatisfaction with Katherine, the moves (to put it euphemistically) that he has made towards first one Boleyn girl and then the other, the early stages of his attempts to have his marriage annulled. And Cromwell? He’s got his own life – he’s a family man, a lawyer, and he seems to be an early form of stockbroker dealing in yarns and cloths – and, for all his famous cleverness, he has no idea of how cataclysmic the changes are going to be.

One last thing. Events are presented from Cromwell’s point of view: he is always ‘he’ – which is why it takes us some time to realise who he is in the first chapter – and if this presents any ambiguity he becomes ‘he, Cromwell’. But, somehow, we don’t always quite get inside his head. Mantel would rather show us what’s going on than to tell us about the effects of events on her main character’s internal life – so, for example, when his wife dies we simply are not presented with the grief he must feel. Is Mantel leaving it to our imagination? Or is she deliberately reminding us that, in fact, these people aren’t really like us at all? Death in Britain in our century is so rare as to be almost unknown. It’s so common in Cromwell’s time (as in the almost throwaway story of the great man who is the sole surviving child in a family of more than 20), well, if you don’t take it in your stride you’re done for.

30 July
To the end of Part 2
Things eventually settle down. I don’t mean the political situation Cromwell is in, obviously, but the narrative is less difficult to keep a grip on. The flashback to his edgy first meeting with his father segues into snippets from his early life in Putney and his frequent visits to his uncle’s in Lambeth. Which is where he starts to find out about counting, reading – and about the 14-year-old prodigy Master Thomas More…. Then we’re back in 1527, and two years that change everything.

Political events edge their way towards the eclipsing of Wolsey’s power by new favourites. We already know that Henry has been sending other envoys abroad without Wolsey’s knowledge, and in this section we find out about the failure of Wolsey’s trip to France, followed by the legatine court in England that represents his last chance. It’s nasty – Mantel describes how, once Katherine decides she doesn’t need to be present, matters descend into sordid discussions of torn skin and spots of blood on the bed-linen. At this time, either nobody (except Cromwell) realises how serious it’s all becoming, or they simply aren’t saying. Katherine behaves as though she still has some clout – agreeing to become a nun, for instance, only on condition that Henry becomes a monk – but she has no chance. And neither has Wolsey. Cromwell doesn‘t say this out loud, but he decides to make his will – and not only because he fears the annual return visits of the plague to London. His faithful clerk Rafe doesn’t understand, but we do.

This is also the section in which Mantel holds up the idea of family life for proper scrutiny. When Cromwell’s wife died I made the mistake of thinking that he was simply taking it in his stride. Wrong. What becomes clear over the next 50 pages is that I’d been fooled by the way he presents himself. Ok, it’s Mantel who’s doing the presenting, but she often only lets us see what Cromwell himself allows to be seen. There is something very public about Liz’s death, with him arriving when it’s all over and having to be – what? – competent and resourceful. During the quarantine Mantel could have let us inside his grief, but she chooses to focus on his reading and games of chess instead.

It’s following other deaths, at a time when other things in his life are looking highly dodgy, that Mantel finally lets us inside. In ‘Make and Mar’, the final short chapter in Part 2 , she also lets us deeper inside the mind-set of this worldly, sceptical man who, like everybody else, has the beliefs of a 16th Century Catholic. I can imagine her thinking about the problem. Her natural readership will be used to historical novels in which characters’ religious beliefs are a long way from our own, but who are to some degree on the same continuum. Modern society is secular, but at the very least the seeds of scepticism of have been around for a long time. This isn’t what Mantel is showing us here. Coming to a head on All Hallows’ Day in 1529, Mantel is letting us in on a belief system that feels alien.

And it’s crucial on at least two levels in this novel. What Henry is embarking on isn’t trivial: the entire structure of society is founded on beliefs that are the stuff of urgent debate. People who have dared to challenge the current orthodoxy are in prison or on the run, and Thomas More – the Mandelson character, surely – is fastidious in his relentless pursuit of the heretics. (There’s a wonderful set piece scene in which he and Cromwell test each other out – and it’s clear that More relishes the idea of an opponent who won’t be a pushover.) It isn’t only at the political level: Mantel makes it personal. More is famous for the hair shirt he wears, described in all its horrifying detail. And, when Cromwell’s two daughters die, including the beloved Anne who had seemed, somehow, to be a part of himself – she thinks like a merchant adventurer, he muses – he seeks solace in prayer. On All Hallows’ Day the dead are real, prayers reach the keepers of Purgatory and even a man of the world can be found in tears. Mantel has him imagining Liz holding the book of hours that used to be hers, and his innocently perfect daughter Grace turning the pages with him. It doesn’t seem extravagant.

This takes place at Esher, and when Cavendish, Wolsey’s factotum, barges in he can hardly believe what he sees. For him it becomes a wry joke: if the great Cromwell is crying, things really must be serious. But it’s better than a joke, because at that moment the personal and the political are shown as inextricably linked. They are both suffused with the belief system of their time – and this, a third of the way through the novel, is what we’re going to witness being dismantled. Gulp.

Anything else? The forces being marshalled against Wolsey and/or Cromwell come from some of the great families. Norfolk and Suffolk are the ones who bring Wolsey the news that he’s out of favour. Meanwhile Boleyn, once humiliated at court by Wolsey, is in the ascendancy for obvious reasons. In another set piece scene, Cromwell finds out what a ruthless family they are. He meets Mary, and she appears to propose marriage to him. He refuses, of course – but he hears a rumour later that had he accepted he would have found himself bringing up another of Henry’s illegitimate children to go with the one Mary already has. And who is Stephen Gardiner? He used to work for Wolsey, but now he seems to be working against him. Time to read on.

31 July
Part 3, Chapter 1: Three-Card Trick…
… which refers, we already know, to one of the first things Thomas learned on the Continent. It’s about making people believe one thing when, in fact, the opposite is true. Enough said. Someone in the chapter, probably Cromwell, mentions the importance of not showing all your cards – and in one way or another these metaphors run through the whole chapter. To some extent they’ve run through the whole novel so far, but Mantel is revealing to us that even if we think we know what’s been happening up to now, we don’t.

For instance. What was I saying about important families? It turns out that a lot of it is spin. We’ve heard in earlier chapters how the Boleyns were in trade to a generation or two back, and Wolsey himself was the son of a master butcher. Norfolk – or is it Suffolk? – can’t trace his family back much further than Cromwell can. (Norfolk is now often referred to as ‘Howard’, Suffolk as ‘Brandon’. Titles are only words in Cromwell’s world-view.) And yet snobbery is as rampant as if all the lords could trace their ancestry to the Conquest at least.

The three-card trick is a money-making scam – just like so much else that goes on in this chapter. Everything depends on money: the lack of it, the getting of it…. Alongside the family thread it pervades everything: Henry’s amalgamation and closure of monasteries is to raise money; Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is desperate for it (and Anne herself is described as having eyes like abacus beads); Wolsey, well, we know about the lifestyle he’s been accustomed to.

Is it just me, or is Mantel really presenting things a bit more straightforwardly now? The chronology has settled down, at least, with the timescale of each chapter given as a subtitle. Instead of flashbacks lasting pages, we get memories: during the subdued Christmas celebrations of 1529 Cromwell remembers the glories of past years in which, inevitably, Liz’s ingenuity and Grace’s innocent beauty feature prominently. And things are becoming less obliquely reported as Cromwell moves nearer to the centre of things. Someone jokes – and there’s a degree of snobbery in the joke, inevitably – that he is becoming a courtier now. He meets the king, who seems impressed by his straightforward dealing, the way he meets your gaze. (I’ve only just realised the extent to which these things feature in Cromwell’s calculations.)

Henry wants to settle things in battle, an idea Cromwell hates. He’s seen what this really entails – in previous chapters we’ve heard him on the appalling reputation of the English at war, taking whatever they want from wherever they want: food and women from houses, gold and silver from churches. Kings don’t think about supplying an army, but Cromwell does. He nudges Henry into thinking about a coastal province in France so he can provision any (highly theoretical) invasion properly. He also nudges him into treating Wolsey more favourably. When Suffolk barges in and tells a story against him, Cromwell dismisses it as an old chestnut that’s often told about cardinals. Two days later, Wolsey starts to get some of his impounded property back.

He won’t have such an easy ride with Thomas More. When More gets an Italian merchant to invite him to meet the ambassador he wonders why. And then he realises: he’s being warned. Look at what you’re up against – and, after everyone has left, he pictures an imaginary seating-plan that includes all the players: Henry, Katherine, Anne – even the pope, and Martin Luther himself. Who will be left after it’s all crashed on top of them? This refers to the tale of Simonides that ends the previous chapter – Simonides who is credited with first recognising the importance of memory. And we all know who has the best memory in England in 1530.

3 August
Part 3, Chapters 2-3
The rise and rise of ‘Truly Beloved Cromwell’, which is the title of Chapter 2. I think what I find so hard about this bloody novel is the way you never get an overview. What you get instead are details. This happens at every level. Mantel doesn’t describe a house, such as Thomas More’s at Chelsea, she describes the pictures you see when you get there. A person is presented in terms of the fidgeting movements of hands or the stitching on clothes – how she loves embroidery, decorative baubles, textiles – and it’s no accident that, twice, Wolsey is caricatured on stage as little more than a crimson-dyed bundle of fabric. And Cromwell’s rise is presented as a series of fairly short set-piece conversations.

Mantel has to make these shadowy tête-à-têtes do a lot of work. (Are they always shadowy? That’s how they feel.) We see Anne, now living in Wolsey’s old place. Cromwell notices the tapestries – of course he does – taken down during the eviction but replaced now. The main feature of this conversation is how she and Mary, now forced to move in with her, behave like bitchy teenage girls. He gets on better with Mary, in the corridor outside, but that’s no good: later in the chapter Anne gets what she wants – Wolsey’s arrest – because Cromwell can’t stop her.

There are other conversations. With Thomas More, Norfolk and Suffolk, Cranmer, Stephen Gardiner, with Anne again. During all of these it becomes clear that each one of them is having to come to terms with the unthinkable: Henry likes this man – this person as Norfolk used to call him – and they’re going to have to do business with him. ‘Dearly beloved Cromwell’ had been one of Wolsey’s phrases, but the trajectory of this chapter has propelled him into Henry’s affections. If Mantel gives us any further clue as to how Cromwell manages this, it’s to do with the way he’s learnt to travel light in a world where everybody else is weighed down by baggage. Nothing counts for him but what you can carry in your head. So he’s learnt to carry whatever he needs – we even get a lesson in how he learnt his memory system – and he casts a cold eye on everything else. It’s no wonder that to him, even the highly capable Henry is a gentleman amateur. Why would he be afraid of talking to him?

Mantel slowly – sometimes painfully slowly – lets us see more and more of the Cromwell that he keeps hidden from his contemporaries. But, somehow, it hasn’t made him seem intimate – I’m finding most of it rather unengaging – and I’m not sure why that is. I don’t think it’s just me: everybody I know who has read this novel, winner of the Man Booker prize by the nearest thing in recent times to a unanimous vote, has found it equally hard going. I wonder if it’s to do with the obliquity: when I said it becoming more direct and straightforward, I was jumping the gun. For instance, the main series of historical events in these chapters is to do with Wolsey’s triumphant progress north, followed by his arrest, illness and death. It all happens off-stage. Cromwell seems to feel genuine regret at having been absent but a) we have to take his (or Mantel’s) word for this and b) we don’t feel any regret at all. Wolsey has become no more real than the tapestry figures he admires so much.

Or is it to do with the painstaking detail, which turns the portrait of the age (or whatever) into historical pointillism? Mantel is brilliant at bringing us close to the everyday corporeality of life under the Tudors – the smelly dampness of wet clothes, the feel of a pinch, the texture of scar tissue – but (and didn’t you just know there’d be a but?) these almost tangible details don’t bring it to life. Not pointillism, then, but a Frankenstein’s monster without the electric spark?

I’ll shut up about it. Henry likes Cromwell, and that’s all that matters. It isn’t because he’s distanced himself from Wolsey – quite the reverse: as Henry lets only Cromwell know, he misses Wolsey a lot – it’s because he makes himself indispensable. A set piece near the end of the long Chapter 2 is the midnight call to Greenwich. Henry has dreamed of his dead brother – and Cranmer can only stand and admire as Cromwell makes the dream mean what he wants it to mean. The family had been terrified by the knock on the door in the night. Cromwell’s son Gregory, and Richard and Rafe who have become like another two sons, have travelled down-river with him – and there is rejoicing when it becomes clear that Henry is the opposite of angry.

What can I say? The shorter Chapter 3 has Cromwell in place, apparently as much a fixture in Henry’s court now as he once was in Wolsey’s. But there’s a long way to go. He’s sitting alongside figures we all remember from history as meeting bad ends at Henry’s hands – we remember the doomed seating-plans that are something else Cromwell keeps in his head – and I’m doing my best not to remember what happened to Cromwell himself.

9 August
Part 4, Chapter 1, plus Chapter 2 as far as the remembered burning of a heretic
The first chapter is ‘Arrange Your Face, 1531’. We see, by no means for the first time, how important such a skill is in this intimate, face-to-face world. And it’s slowly emerging that the only other person who seems to be as good at is as Cromwell himself is – Anne Boleyn. A lot of the chapter is to do with reputation, rumour, speculation about her. How much influence has she got with Henry – and, therefore, how many of his political decisions are really hers? And, far more importantly, what is the truth about her private life? Everybody thinks they know all about her habits – even Cromwell tries asking Thomas Wyatt how many lovers she’s had – but it’s becoming clear that, as with so much else in this book, nobody knows anything. In the same conversation with Wyatt the disturbing possibility arises that she’s a virgin. Wyatt calls it her ‘Yes, yes, yes, no’ bedroom behaviour – he never succeeded, he says – and Mary makes the joke that Anne is giving herself to Henry inch by inch: she demands gifts for every further inch of leg she shows. Of course, even if these tales are true, it proves nothing. Mantel likes to keep us guessing, as I think I’ve probably implied often enough by now.

Cromwell is now even more firmly established in the inner circle of Henry’s advisers. Not that we see much of Henry in this chapter – Mantel’s doing that thing again where she keeps the main historical protagonists just out of sight – but Cromwell does. The great rival isn’t Thomas More: Cromwell knows More would have him arrested if he could, but he can’t – it’s Stephen Gardiner. He decides to keep clear water between himself and Gardner, because it’s better for him to be seen as a spirited alternative to the rather dour bishop. Gardiner now has Winchester, the cream of Wolsey’s old fiefdom, which is fine: it keeps him busy, especially when he has to go abroad on royal business.

So, things move on. In a previous entry I described the technique as narrative pointillism. Now it feels more like scenes from a long tapestry unfolding: some characters have almost disappeared – where is the influence of Norfolk and Suffolk now? – while others become more prominent. More is never far away, but Henry seems to be letting him deal with the bee in his own bonnet: the eradication of the influence of Thomas Tyndale. People are arrested and, at best, their health is broken in the Tower. At worst they become a footnote like Little Bilney, burned for heresy. In Chapter 2 we begin to see more of Henry, and we’re no more impressed than Cromwell is. We know as well as he does that if the pope were to grant just one thing, then England would remain loyal to him. If not, well, Henry is beginning to think about how much use he could make of the money that currently goes to Rome….

Meanwhile, domestic life goes on. While we never – ever – get a feel for Cromwell’s daily routine, we are presented with insights into the family set-up. His sister-in-law Johane and her family moved in after the death of his wife, and he gets on with her. She likes his dependence on her but resents his constantly calling her Liz by mistake. Will they marry if her ailing husband fails to make it through the next winter? It depends what the law on re-marriage is by then, ho-ho. People come and go in these areas of the tapestry as well as in the more public ones, like the new apprentice cooks, apparently drafted in from the street. Cromwell knows about the street.

And we get a couple more of those flashbacks to his early life in Putney. Or, if he’s in disgrace with his father after him, anywhere that isn’t Putney. Mantel performs a kind of sleight of hand, making use of the unremitting suspicion amongst the gents about his origins. His father, he is happy to tell them, was a smith – and where would all the other trades be without the cleavers, scythes, horseshoes, hammers they need? The implication is clear: he isn’t only talking about his blacksmith skills. But it also lets Mantel take us more directly to a specific historical moment, the march of Cornishmen on London in the 1490s – and the usefulness of metalworking in preparing defences. It’s like those moments when we get a detail of clothing or physical discomfort: for a moment the tapestry feels more real.

There’s another moment, when the young Thomas is on the run from his father. Mantel wants to remind us of the realities of More’s anti-heresy policies – she’s already let us know about several different kinds of torture – so we get a flashback to the first burning of a heretic he ever witnesses. We get the full story from the excited anticipation of the crowd, through the terrified look on the victim’s face (etc.) to the clearing up of charred and greasy bones after it’s over. The incident also gives Mantel the chance to stack up a couple of things in her main character’s favour: he hates the sight, feels sorry for the old woman, helps her friends in their illicit gathering up of her bones. Good lad.

10 August
Part 4 Chapter 2, cont; Chapter 3
One wonderful episode in the middle of Part 4 made me realise why I’m generally fairly pissed off with this book. The young Henry Cecil is causing a stir: he’s calling his marriage a sham because he once exchanged solemn vows with Anne Boleyn, and she allowed him ‘freedoms’ that only a betrothed lover would. Silly boy. There’s a set-piece conversation in which Cromwell the Putney lad lets Cecil know the score. In private – we’ve seen him slam shut the serving hatch against the eavesdroppers – he gives Cecil a lesson in globalisation. He can’t explain how kingdoms are completely in hock to the European banks, but spells out that if Cecil doesn’t play ball he’ll suddenly find all his creditors will descend on him together. Then the gloves come off. Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, ‘will drag you out of whatever hole you’re cowering in and bite your bollocks off.’ It’s The Thick of It, and I laughed out loud.

But that’s not the end of it. The next scene has a full council meeting, complete with King and Archbishop of Canterbury, in which Cecil has to recant, on the Bible. Following the bar-room battering Cecil’s just had (it really does take place in a bar-room), we’re cynical about the solemnity of the pseudo-religious ritual foisted on him. Mantel, in four pages, has shown us exactly how it works. In four pages – and this is my complaint – she’s given us more entertainment and a clearer insight than we’ve had in the previous 370-odd. Why isn’t it all like this? Why so often do we have to drown in the painstakingly applied detail of episode after episode? Why do I feel so lost sometimes that I don’t even try to keep track?

Dunno. But in the rest of Part 4 we start to get somewhere. It’s taken five years – Mantel has Cromwell think back to the events near the start of the novel – but, at last, Henry gets that look on his face that Wolsey told Cromwell to look out for: he’s finally got Anne into bed. It happens in Calais, on Henry’s visit to see the French king – and that’s another first: instead of hearing about people’s travels we actually get to go on a trip across the Narrow Sea. (Quaint how Mantel has them call it that when absolutely every other aspect of 16th Century speech and vocabulary is rendered into 21st.) The Cecil episode illustrates what’s been going on for 100-odd pages now: Cromwell has been bringing about what Henry wants. Not that it’s over yet: the trip to France looks hopeful now, but Henry isn’t officially divorced yet and none of the powerful players have agreed to anything.

What else? As before, these chapters have Cromwell and Henry’s stories running parallel, but with more equal weight than previously because Cromwell is now so close to the king. On the political stage, things carry on as normal: some men reach the end of their shelf-life – Thomas More has been forced to retire – while others find new favour. Cromwell is becoming more confident in his dealings with almost everybody: Stephen Gardiner seems to hold no terrors for him, and Canterbury is a doddering old man. As for Henry: Cromwell’s closeness is giving him, and us, more insight into what makes him tick. He isn’t evil, or particularly self-obsessed – but he is spoilt, not very mature – how could he be? – and fixated on the idea of an heir. At those times when he seems like a big kid, that’s how Cromwell deals with him.

Not much domesticity… but plenty of references to his careful planning and accounting skills – and plenty of dealings with women. Cecil’s wife, Anne – she regards him as her own man now – and Mary, who offers herself to him in Calais. (For all sorts of reasons, he doesn’t take her up on it.) There seems to be nothing this man can’t do, and no doors seem closed to him…. But is it enough? He’s looking for something on a different plane, as when he asks the latest visionary sensation if she can tell him anything about Wolsey’s after-life, thinks back to Liz’s death. He might behave like a terrier, he can be sarcastic about the cant and the money-making scams of the Church: these are the things in him that people see. But Mantel lets us see that he underneath it all he wants to believe in something.

11 August
Part 5, Chapter 1
This chapter is ‘Anna Regina’ but, as with Percy’s recantation a chapter or two ago, no amount of solemnity, or solemnisation (or whatever) is going to persuade us that these posturings are anything but makeshift. What we all know from history about Henry’s carryings-on is that he forced the great men of his age into the sorts of positions we’re seeing in this novel, and Mantel’s mission is to make something new of it. Sometimes she does. But if Henry’s fight for what he wants is what we now call a slow-motion car-crash, well, one of Mantel’s successes is to let us know just how slow it is.

But where was I? In each section of the novel Cromwell is more indispensable than the last. That’s a given, and has been for most of the book: in this section people wonder how things might have been if the king had relied on Cromwell instead of Wolsey in the 1520s, and at other times a consensus seems to be growing that there’s nothing he doesn’t know. Mantel is now feeding us these little testimonials every few pages, alongside the very occasional set-piece scene in which we see him at work. It’s another of her sleights of hand, and I’m not complaining: I suppose it’s her way of getting us to believe that our hugely positive view of him is based on what we’ve actually seen.

Something else that has got us on his side since, roughly, the All Hallows chapter in Part 2 is his vulnerability. His sense of his own fallibility, his grief over the loss of his wife and daughters (which Mantel reminds us of in this chapter), his genuine humanity when faced with people in need that he feels he can help…. These all get us on to his side. The chapter starts with him taking in a battered wife who has received almost literally cold comfort from the local nuns, and ends with him sorting out a strategy for helping a pregnant woman at the opposite end of the social scale. Cranmer tells Cromwell he’s the only true friend he has – there another testimonial – and he also tells him that he accepted the post of Archbishop of Canterbury despite being married. Cromwell meets the wife, a non-English-speaking immigrant, and his heart lurches at the way she rises from her chair: he recognises it from when Liz was pregnant.

This is Mantel at her best. Everything good about Cromwell comes together: his humanity, his – ahem – caring side, his instant recognition of the dangers his unworldly friend can’t see at all… and, of course, his ability to organise what needs to be done. The battered wife, free of her husband, can be a companion for her. (Now I think of it, the people in his house aren’t deliriously happy about this. He does tend to treat people like pawns sometimes. Often.)

In the big world… stuff carries on happening. The Calais vows are made more formal in London, quietly, and Anne is already pregnant. Katherine is as spirited as ever, but Cromwell begins to realise she might be in danger of a worse fate than mere relegation to her current dowager status. More continues on his fundamentalist crusade, and a likeable, unworldly scholar gets burned. (More needs to watch out. His fanaticism is starting to alienate him from the more pragmatic king.) Mary Boleyn is going to marry Richard Cromwell… but then she isn’t: Henry needs her to keep Anne’s side of the bed warm, and she’s bitter about her ‘used dishcloth’ status when Cromwell sees her.

Henry. As the novel has gone on, Cromwell’s sees his more and more often. Mantel rarely gives us anything but a highly edited version of Cromwell’s view, but she lets us feel we’re getting a bit more insight into the king now. He’s more than a spoilt kid… although I can never get those words of the Helen Mirren character in Gosford Park out of my head, that the upper classes are all children. But that’s how they’ve been brought up – and that’s how Henry has been brought up. He can’t be mature in the way that Cromwell or almost any of the other key players are mature, so dealing with him is always going to have an element of managing the Queen in Blackadder about it.

And the king, along with everybody else, lives in the kind of highly physical world our century associates with childhood and adolescence. We’ve had (and continue to get) reminders of the realities of life, as though Mantel wants to remind us that these people are a lot closer to the Middle Ages than they are to us. Almost any action leads to up-close physical consequences: we’ve had a whiff of torture and hideous executions, but less deadly aspects of life often have the dial turned up just as high. There’s sex and pregnancy – Anne is close to term at the end of the chapter – the process of managing to survive another year, the coldness of winters, the hardness of journeys…. They all take a physical toll on the body our own century knows almost nothing about.

Finally, for now. Is there a name for that technique which has an unspoken thought processes running parallel to whatever gets said during a conversation? I’m mainly listening to an audio-book version, so it isn’t always so clear, but in print you get the speechmarked lines preceded, or followed, by what is going through Cromwell’s head. I’ve often seen it used, often for comic effect, as in Don’t tell her how beautiful she looks with her hair like that. ‘Wow, your hair – it looks beautiful like that.’ Anyway, you get it a lot here and the effect is, well, you get to see at least some of the hidden depths that nobody else does. It’s another way that Mantel has of making us think we know what makes this man tick.

12 August
Part 5, Chapters 2-3
It’s a girl… but Henry is so surrounded by spin-doctors even he is able to swallow his disappointment within hours. Perhaps God has a special plan for this girl? Or perhaps hers will be a marriage to seal England’s future forever. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Anyway, the next one is bound to be a boy. (Why, without any of Mantel’s usual promptings about the narrowness of Anne’s neck, do we give an involuntary shudder? Now I think about it, we shudder every time we hear of those people whose names have come down to us as martyrs. A bit. It doesn’t help that the daughter is Elizabeth: we remember Mary.)

Cromwell’s rise continues. Now we see him able to patronise noblemen with gifts from the king – even the no-nonsense Cromwell can’t resist adding to some toff’s excruciating embarrassment when he comes to express his thanks, not to the king but to the blacksmith’s boy…. Not that anybody’s mentioned his past for some time now, as he equips his new house and poses for his portrait by Holbein. Who is a personal friend, obviously. Is he the first commoner ever to rise so high, a precursor of a meritocracy that only really took hold in the USA 250 years later? Or a precursor of the cult of celebrity? He doesn’t milk it – he doesn’t need to – and neither does Mantel. She never makes these comparisons with our own time, even though in many ways she’s made him in our own image. In many ways she definitely hasn’t.

What happens? The girl who has the visions is interrogated, not cruelly but relentlessly. She breaks, and she’s going to take some big names (like John Fisher) down with her. Katherine and ‘the Lady Mary’ – whose proposed role is to be her half-sister’s servant – are still causing headaches. Henry seems more adolescent than ever, as he relaxes in to a round of hunting and jousting, and never feels better than when reminiscing about childhood snowball fights with lords who now advise him. Oh, and good news: the pope apparently isn’t going to excommunicate Henry…. And other stuff.

At home, Cromwell plans for the future – not for himself, or at least that’s what he tells some woman trying to tempt him with a good match – but for his son and all the surrogate nuclear family he’s gathered around himself. The short Chapter 3 is about his portrait. Mantel takes us inside the head of a very modern-seeming man – it’s like the mirror-view at the end of a makeover show – and he admits that he hadn’t realised that he was vain…. It’s another of the trappings to go with the coat of arms we know about from an earlier chapter, and the expensively kitted-out house. Is he becoming like all the other toffs? Is that going to be a thread in the final section? Mantel seems to puncture the idea with a joke. When he tells his amiable son that Mark, the toadyish musician, thinks he looks like a murderer, Gregory is surprised: ‘Didn’t you know?’

13 August
Part 6, Chapter 1, plus Chapter 2 to the bout of ‘Italian fever’
It’s the first time we’ve ever seen Cromwell ill. We know it isn’t going to be fatal: what it does instead is open up his mind, as only fever can, to the things that are important to him. Long before this point we’ve been seeing him look about himself (when he’s got a minute, which is rare) and wonder where it all went: family, affections, life. His various wards seem to be getting themselves sorted out, and there’s a poignant moment, after Rafe’s told him he’s secretly married the battered wife, when he imagines his daughter Mary as she might have been had she lived: she had hoped to marry Rafe, and she would have been old enough now. Ah well.

The unspoken question running through these chapters is to do with what it’s all been for. The king isn’t happy, with a demanding and rather unlikeable wife. And all of Cromwell’s life is spent organising things he doesn’t really care about. Before his illness he’s doing 18-hour days on the efficient running of a state machine that’s largely based on the whims of a 40-something child. (Mantel has him actually using the word, in his thoughts at least.) If it’s not to do with the tweaking of legislation or bringing all his powers of persuasion to bear on dissenters from the orthodoxy he’s just finished tweaking, he’s dealing endlessly with the nuts and bolts of quantities and figures. Chapter 1 is ambiguously entitled ‘Supremacy’ – referring to the Act of that name, obviously, but also to Cromwell’s unassailable position in the government. We might not hear him asking himself what it’s all about, but only because we don’t need to.

Stuff. The young prophetess is completely discredited, and Cromwell routinely tries to get her to implicate Katherine – not because he has anything against her as a person, but because it would be a convenient way of getting rid of her as a threat. Meanwhile, More is not so amenable: he won’t agree to drop what he sees as his principles. Cromwell becomes quietly exasperated by the pointlessness of trying to win any arguments, based principally on the idea that, after all, sworn statements and promises are only words. He reminds More that just before going up to university he told the curious seven-year-old Thomas that the book he was reading was only words. But in the end all Cromwell can offer comes down to more words, and he realises that any form of language – the mastery of which has always been his main weapon – simply doesn’t work. You can see why he seems to be questioning the point of what he does….

Anne is pregnant again, but miscarries. She is unpleasant to almost everyone around her, including her sister Mary, who has married someone insignificant for love, she says. Hovering around Mary, but not so far in the background as she was previously, is Jane Seymour; Wolf Hall, which she left as a child following murky rumours of incestuous relationships, is being mentioned more and more often, and we can only guess why. On the wider stage, the new pope isn’t going to let Henry off the hook after all. On the narrower stage Rafe, like Mary, has married for love, and it makes Cromwell look into himself. He contemplates Helen, the battered wife, her tidy body and her hardworking habits. He realises he could have married her… but his mind was elsewhere. He realises his mind has always been elsewhere. How old is he? Not old, but the mood is almost elegiac. All he needs now is to sort out something for the likeable, unremarkable Gregory and his job is done.

15 August
To the end
Wolf Hall is there at the end. Cromwell has got everything sorted out to the best of his or anybody else’s ability, and he’s planning the King’s summer tour to the west. He will be able to catch up but, hold on, he’ll be able to spend a bit of time with the Seymours. That’ll be nice.

Don’t ask me why the novel ends like that. Not that it feels too soon – ignoring for the moment the fact that there’s a leaner, more engaging novel inside this one trying to get out – because there were various loose ends to tie up. Particularly, More takes the dispute he has to its logical conclusion: after more futile remonstration from Cromwell over weeks and months – I really don’t know why Mantel bothers to take us through it all again, because it doesn’t seem to get anywhere – and a harsher regime in the Tower, More finally comes to trial. His arrogant manner doesn’t appeal to the burghers of London and Mantel hops ahead to the day after his execution. She returns to the horrible moment when the sound can be heard of steel cutting into flesh – at least More doesn’t have to face the horrors of being drawn and quartered like some of the others who have been found guilty, and Mantel has made sure we know exactly what that involves – but there’s no more of the elegiac mood.

Is there any kind of conclusion? It doesn’t feel like it to me: Cromwell is irreplaceable – even the king comes to visit while he’s ill – but by the time the novel ends we haven’t learnt much more than we did 50 or 60 pages before. When you’re at the peak, when even the nobility tacitly consider you to be second only to the king, what is there to look forward to? A five-day holiday in Wolf Hall, that’s what.

After finishing reading the novel, but before I wrote this, I spoke to yet another reader who found it too – what? – too hard, too dense? Too long. As I said a long time ago, it was popular among the Man Booker judges…. What were they getting from the experience that so many readers apparently aren’t getting? A marvellous, well-rounded character in Thomas Cromwell? An extraordinarily imaginative insight into what it must have been like for an ordinary man gradually to become the most powerful man in government? Etc. Etc. – I’m not going to deny it. But think about what is lacking. Little or no character development amongst the army of other characters; no visual – or any other – evocation of daily life in London; no sense of the vastness of distances that are a few hours’ journey for us, of the yawning gaps of time between the sending of a letter to Europe and getting a reply. You don’t get the big sweep, ever, you get the intimate, the small-scale, the little. Which is a bit ironic in such a big book.

I’ve discovered that Mantel is working on a sequel. Will I be reading it? If she can’t achieve the required narrative arc in 650 pages – there’s a terribly unfinished feel to the novel – she’s not doing it right. The main engine of all this historical business is Henry – his inability to deal with the lack of a male heir, his lack of maturity, his inability to manage the women in his life – and, of course, his problems have only just begun. Wolf Hall is where Jane Seymour is from, and if we were in the middle of a novel the visit there would be pivotal. It isn’t. Mantel has kept Henry in the background, so Cromwell’s attempts to make something humane of the legislation he is forced to frame aren’t seen in the context of a head of state spinning out of control. Cromwell is presented as a likeable, thoughtful man – but we’re only following the fortunes of a bit-part player in something we know is far bigger than he is.

There’s an irony in the idea of a visit to Wolf Hall being presented simply as a holiday. But it’s not an appalling, gut-wrenching irony: these people were all doomed before we even started and Wolf Hall is just another step on a road that’s only half-travelled. If this endlessly reworked story really needs another 650 pages, Mantel must have got the pace wrong from the start.



4 Responses to Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

  1. Mcglynn says:

    Have just reached 500 pages plus and am drifting off every time I recommence reading and thus am grateful for your synopsis and commentary. Wolf hall lite would be a really engaging read but I just haven’t engaged with the narrative -a really frustrating and unrewarding experience. Considering whether to jump to the last chapter?

  2. wecanreadit says:

    When I read the novel three or more years ago I couldn’t believe the hype surrounding it. It was like a conspiracy, with critics queueing to heap praise on what most of them, I decided, must have found as hard to read as I did. Recently on British radio a panellist on an arts show said he was going to say the unthinkable: he had never liked Wolf Hall. Halleluia. As for your thought at the end: why not read what I’ve written about it from page 500 onwards (wherever that is) and then read the final chapter? And then… read Bring Up The Bodies, which is much better. My summary is already written.

  3. DS Murray says:

    Mantel deliberately has this writing style for the series.She’s trying to throw you off centre, make you unsure, uncomfortable, stop you assuming on page 1 that you know where all this is going.
    She’s trying to help you forget what you know and walk with the characters and feel with them the impact of unfolding events, living moment by moment. She’s trying to stop you experiencing their lives through your historically influenced viewpoint.I’ve never felt so close to historical figures as I have done reading Mantel.This is why she’s brilliant.

    • wecanreadit says:

      Thank you for this. Having read the whole trilogy now, I see it as an extraordinary project. mantel herself has spoken of how she wanted to inhabit Cromwell’s mind, and she takes the reader with her. But maybe my style of reading isn’t quite suited to her style of writing. I like to be able to get a handle on things as I read, and these reading journals are a product of that. I might have been better to have gone for full immersion from start to finish, rather than stepping outside the experience all the time to see what I’m making of it all.

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