The Tudors are the First Family of English history. We know Elizabeth, with her red hair, her rakish privateers, her defiant speeches in the face of the Armada. And every child born on this island in the last half a millennium knows her father, Henry. You can picture him now, broad-shouldered, majestically fat, hands set firmly on the hips of his jewelled doublet, small eyes glowering above a crooked nose and a square, ginger beard. A tyrant who broke the church in his desperation for an heir: who went through wives faster than most men wear through coats. The litany of their fates: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine, Catherine. It is easy to see why so many writers have come to this story.
Historical fiction is not easy. Along with the necessity of research, the burden of responsibility towards those whose lives you are co-opting, there is the paradox that the most interesting stories – those that will give you most material and bring you the biggest audiences – have already been well excavated. It gets harder each time to find new things to say and new ways to say them. Harder to avoid re-opening the last writer’s trench, and disinterring the same combination of facts and invention.
Despite these challenges, Hillary Mantel manages to make Wolf Hall feel fresh and new. By focalising her story through Thomas Cromwell, she shifts our attention away from the spectacle of the court, and Henry’s dangerous charisma, and onto the nitty gritty of Renaissance politics. We are at the very cusp of the modern world, with feudal institutions still in place, but with the balance of power shifting away from the hereditary warlord and towards the merchant and the lawyer. The role of parliament is still primarily to enact the king’s will, but this is done within the bounds of existing legal precedents, and the day to day running of the country is done around more than by the king. In Cromwell, Mantel gives us the perfect example of this changing balance of power, and Wolf Hall charts how a blacksmith’s son was able to rise to one of the most important positions in the kingdom. Even today, such a steep social climb seems improbable. If it happened to a purely fictional creation, we would probably not be able to give it credit.
In fact, the novel is as much a character study as it is a tale of political intrigue. Where other writers have presented Cromwell as a ruthless Machiavellian schemer, Mantel’s Cromwell is a reformer and a moderate, seizing the opportunity to create change through pragmatic diplomacy and legalism, while remaining wary of zealots. Like other writers, Mantel sets Cromwell in opposition to Thomas More (there are a lot of Thomases in the novel – at one point Cromwell jokes to himself about how calling the name could bring half of the household out). Both are lawyers who become advisors to the king, but where Cromwell is pragmatic, focussed on the real world and the need for compromise, More is uncompromising, and focussed on the hereafter. Cromwell tells him: ‘I am glad I am not like you…. my mind focussed on the next world. I realise you see no prospect of improving this one.’ However, where other writers have made the two Thomases antagonists, Mantel portrays them more as counterpoints – going so far as to invent a circumstance where the child Cromwell spent time working as a servant in the same great house that More grew up in. While they are often working towards different ends, and Cromwell dislikes More for his persecution of London’s reformist ‘Bible-men’, there is a certain level of respect between the two, which only gives way to frustration on Cromwell’s part towards the end of the novel. Here, Cromwell’s failure to persuade More to take the necessary steps to save himself from execution under a legal mechanism that he, Cromwell, set in motion. This is the main arc of the plot: Cromwell the moderate – who is just as judgemental of his protestant friends who refuse to compromise when it would save their lives as he is of More – goes from being disgusted by the practice of burning ‘heretics’, to signing people’s death warrants because of their political beliefs. Mantel’s sleight of hand is that she does this without us ever losing sympathy with him.
In part, she has achieved this through her use of close-third person perspective. No one sees himself as the villain in his own story, and when you spend six-hundred pages as a passenger in somebody’s psyche, it is easy to understand their motivations and accept their justifications for their own actions. When executions do take place, it is not his fault. It is the machinery of the law, it is the stubbornness of the accused, it is the king – not Cromwell – who has reached the end of his patience. But Mantel leaves hints throughout the novel that others may not see Cromwell as he sees himself. Other characters speculate, jokingly and otherwise, about what Cromwell may have done in his past as a mercenary, or tell him that he looks ‘like a murderer’. He is liked and respected by his contemporaries, but they are also wary of him. He may see himself as persuasive, but when he is working to achieve the king's ends, his arguments have the threat of a treason conviction behind them. As modern reader's, we sympathise with Cromwell's reformist attitudes, but Mantel doesn't let us forget that he is ultimately a tool of an absolute monarchy. Henry may be largely a benign tyrant, but he is still a tyrant.
There are, of course, different types of close third-person narrative. In Wolf Hall, Mantel spends at least as much time turning Cromwell’s gaze in on himself as she does turning it outwards. She is as interested in the nature of memory as she is in the dynamics of Tudor Westminster. This helps to humanise Cromwell - we are there as his grief over losing his wife and daughters goes from fresh wound to a sort of nostalgic mourning, and we see the pride he takes in the young men apprenticed into his household - proxy sons drawn, like him, from the families of commoners. Mantel uses Proustian madeleine-moments to bring earlier images and ideas back to the surface at thematically relevant moments. Except when she is dealing directly with memory, she uses the presents tense: a simple trick which makes the past seem immediate and prevents her from giving her protagonist an uncanny hindsight, and also seems appropriate for a life as busy as Cromwells. The overall effect is somewhere between Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, but easier to read than either. This does mean that we don’t always get a strong sense of the external, concrete world (except perhaps when Cromwell is looking at textiles with the eye of a former wool merchant), but when the character is as interesting as Cromwell, it hardly seems to matter, and Mantel more than makes up for it with stunning physical use of metaphorical language. I’ll finish this review with an example, which is too good not to share:
There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it in your hand. You can strike, or not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.