The nation has been labouring under a recent flurry of Tudors. There have been numerous romantic historical productions, among them Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and an endless TV series with the young King Henry jousting, feasting, hunting and whoring his way round the forests and stately homes of England. Hilary Mantel’s massive new novel will be published to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne. She covers much the same ground as the popular histories, but in an entirely different register and with a different bias. Affairs of state predominate over the sex lives of her characters, rather than the other way around.
Wolf Hall follows the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell, from the fall of Cardinal Wolsey to the death of Sir Thomas More. Henry VIII has always enjoyed our favour in the soaps; he was a big man with huge appetites. More, on the other hand, has a reputation for saintly integrity as a man of principle who educated his daughters. Mantel creates revisionist versions of them both. More is a fanatical bigot in grubby clothes who keeps an evil table, is responsible for torturing and burning heretics, humiliates his wife in public and belittles women for their stupidity. Cromwell is our hero and we are encouraged to trust his judgement when he says to More, who has refused to swear the famous Oath of Supremacy to the King as Head of the Church of England: ‘I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will have only the suffering and not your martyr’s gratification.’ The mirror is a powerful metaphor in the novel. Cromwell’s house is filled with them. Wolsey is whitewashed yet much missed: a wise figure embodying loyalty, tolerance and Machiavellian statecraft. The cardinal knows whom to woo and whom to kill. Henry emerges as a monster of capriciousness, cruelty, vanity, lechery and hypochondria. Not that he was wrong to fear sudden death. No sooner do we learn to like Cromwell’s wife Liz, for instance, than she drops dead of the sweating sickness.
Mantel subsumes the descriptive writing into the action and the exchanges between the characters. Henry Sadler urges Cromwell to stay in Essex: ‘can’t you stay, you won’t make it to London before they close the gates.’ Suddenly the cramped streets of London as a walled city lurch off the page. This is a concise, modern way of recreating a historical period. And Mantel’s method is often clever and amusing. The enraged Duke of Norfolk ‘has been seeing his armourer for a fitting, and is still wearing sundry parts – his cuirass, his garde-reins – so that he looks like an iron pot wobbling to the boil’. In fact, because the narrative and the dramatic action are presented through Cromwell, mostly in the present tense but sometimes through memories, the reader cannot see or reflect upon much that Cromwell doesn’t see. The lack of an omniscient narrator limits the sensual descriptions Mantel can give. Thus the settings – what a place smelt like, the space, texture and physical geography of Tudor England – remain sparse and hard to grasp. Description, though, in the extent and density of its texture, is a matter of taste and judgement, and there are some fine passages, especially those evoking the weather in our tiny rainy kingdom.
Hans Holbein, who painted most of the dramatis personae, is a character in the novel; and this is what Mantel also offers – portraits. The central portrait, and the perceiving consciousness of the novel, is Cromwell, once Wolsey’s man, who eventually takes his master’s place; but Mantel also paints a detailed, complex portrait of the Tudor court, with all its ambassadors, spies, flunkies, worldly priests, bitchy ladies-in-waiting and embattled megalomaniac queens. The events of Tudor history are well known. The main interest is therefore in character and motive – how did this all happen and why? Nobody lives their lives in private; Henry’s claustrophobic court is filled with rumour, gossip, tittle-tattle, paranoia and arse-licking. This makes the action utterly absorbing: office politics writ large. Offend the queen, or la grande putain, as the French called Anne Boleyn, and you end up with your head on the block or your feet in the fire.
Much of the action is moved forward through dialogue and debate. The diction is modern, but aware of the historical period. The voices are at once recognisable and strange; these people do not think as we do. There are different issues at stake. The religious power struggles of the times take centre stage; should ordinary people be allowed to read the gospel in English? The Reformation emerges as a savage battleground, where a sceptical opinion or intellectual honesty expressed in the wrong company could kill the person who speaks and everyone who listens.
If you have never read Mantel’s historical fiction before, then start here. Wolf Hall is atmospheric, compelling and terrifying. Hilary Mantel is writing at the top of her game.