Wolf Hall pops up in several lists of best historical fiction ever, but I got turned to it by Kim Stanley Robinson, who mentioned it in an interview as superb – together with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. It is the first book in a planned trilogy spanning the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, and famous for having had a hand in the creation of the Anglican church, as well as in the downfall of both Thomas More and Anne Boleyn.
Wolf Hall sketches the events of Tudor England up until 1535. Sequel Bringing Up The Bodies was published in 2012 and won a Man Booker Prize too. The Mirror And The Light will cover the last 4 years of Cromwell’s life and has yet to be published.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s 650 pages. It should appeal to lots of fantasy fans too, as the character of Thomas Cromwell makes for quite a hero. He is the first low born man to rise to such high stature in the English realm, an exceptional figure. What makes him remarkable is his intelligence: he is one of the first English people to notice the importance of the emerging financial, monetary world; speaks numerous languages; has a keen sense of the ways of humans that help him in his power brokering. Plus, he is a bit of a vagabond: fleeing an abusive father, he was a mercenary for the French, travelled through the Low Countries, and ended up serving a Florentine banker. Stranger than fiction indeed, a character that could have been plucked out of whatever court fantasy. It is the other way around of course, as most subpar fantasy is just medieval history with dragons.
Obviously historians are still debating this and that, and writing about history willy-nilly leads to making choices. Hillary Mantel paints a Thomas Cromwell in a more or less sympathetic light – contrary to commonly held beliefs. He mourns his wife and daughters that die too early, he is a loyal servant to his first English patron, cardinal Wolsey, he struggles with memories of his father, feels for Thomas More’s family, etc. Reviewers writing that they didn’t get to see Cromwell’s emotions haven’t read carefully enough. The emotions are there, and they are one of the many strengths of the book.
Hilary Mantel knows she writes fiction, makes choices. She admits so on the final but one page, in a passage that is obviously meta, yet fits the story and the thoughts of her Cromwell well – all of the last 50 or so pages are truly exquisite, moving, final.
He knows different now. It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.
Still, even after 650 pages, Cromwell stays an elusive character. He is a mystery to himself, and multiple personas in one body – as we all are, I guess. It is to Mantel’s credit she has managed to paint somebody complex, without resorting to vagueness, without the painted figure out of focus, and at the same time without being too obvious about Cromwell’s complexity. The two following passages are among the very few that explicitly, overtly talk about his inner life.
He Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomas Cromwell, withdraws his past selves into his present body and edges back to where he was before. His single shadow slides against the wall, a visitor not sure of his welcome. Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming?
I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?
So yes, Wolf Hall is an ‘English’ book, subtle – as the cliché goes. Plus, occasionally brutal and upfront – the times were harsh, and Mantel doesn’t romanticize. Subtle, brutal, and funny too! Although it’s not a court drama, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would be a good fantasy counterpart.
There’s so much to say about this book. In the remainder, I’ll focus on the conflict between two world views underlying the novel, and some remarks on Mantel’s style.