by Hilary Mantel
This is the first new novel I’ve read in a long time. I mean, properly read, as in, started, enjoyed, become absorbed, and finished within a reasonable length of time.
It’s the story of Thomas Cromwell from his humble beginnings in 1500 as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith, through his years as a kind of assistant and friend to Cardinal Wolsey, to the height of his power as Secretary of State to King Henry VIII in 1535.
The book is packed with minute detail, and yet it doesn’t become boring. It’s told from the point of view of Cromwell, but in the third person. Cromwell is almost always referred to as “he” and “him”, so that sometimes you have to stop and think who the author means. But this is not a problem. The main cause of confusion is the number of peripheral characters, historically accurate figures who were a part of the King’s court at various times. First names are often common ones, such as John, Mark, George, Thomas or Tom. And many characters are referred to by their first name, their surname or their title, variously. For instance, Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn, becomes the Earl of Wiltshire during the story, and is referred to as Monseigneur as well. Her uncle is the Duke of Norfolk, but also a Howard, which is important to the story at times.
The story covers the years from when the King becomes fascinated by Anne Boleyn, through to the time when he is tired of her and obsessed with the need to father a son. The title of the book, Wolf Hall, is almost incidental to the story, in that it is the name of the home of the Seymour family, whose daughter Jane is a part of the story, and as we all know, is to become the King’s third wife. But not in this book – maybe there will be a sequel. Only at the very end of the last chapter do we find Cromwell planning a summer jaunt for the Henry, ranging across his kingdom, and including a few days at Wolf Hall.
Cromwell is depicted as a complex character, who pulls himself up from a low, violent childhood, runs away to the continent where he learns business and finance, returns to England and learns about the law and builds himself a life and family. Along the way he makes useful contacts, friends and enemies. Among his friends is Cardinal Wolsey, a larger than life figure who teaches Cromwell a great deal and furthers his interests. Cromwell is devoted to Wolsey but can’t prevent his eventual disgrace. Following Wolsey’s death, he becomes ever closer to the Boleyn family and then to the King, continuing Wolsey’s work as he sees it, which is to promote the King’s interests and to steer the country away from the Catholic Church. Sir Thomas More features heavily, as a dedicated Catholic and a ruthless torturer of heretics, yet there is respect between him and Cromwell, who does his best to spare him his eventual execution.
The morals of the times are fascinating and complex. There is no explicit sex in the book, but it is gradually made clear that Cromwell himself must have had many women. After his wife dies, he carries on an affair with her sister for several years, while she and her husband live in his own household. There are hints an gossip about many other ladies. Ladies in waiting are said to draw lots among the courtiers queuing up to sleep with them. The King and Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, not only have an affair before Anne becomes queen, but also whilst Anne is pregnant. It is said that their father prefers the king to have Mary rather than a girl from any other family. And yet apparently Anne does not allow the king to actually have her properly until they are married. She is described as a ruthless woman who knows that once the king has had his way with her, he is less likely to marry her.
The story shows how the people around the king progress slowly through trying to prove that his first marriage to Queen Katherine was wrong because she had first been married to his brother Arthur; to endless negotiations with the Pope and the king of France, against a background of Lollards, Lutherans and Tyndale’s English bible; through Henry’s frustration because he wants Anne, but he also wants to be loved by his people, and is afraid of the power of Rome. It goes on for years, while Cromwell builds his position at court and gradually becomes indispensable.
Cromwell comes across as a man who knows that the only person he can rely on is himself, and yet he empathises with many people. He is forever grateful to Wolsey for his patronage and friendship; takes in many apprentices to train them in the law; rescues wives of men executed as heretics, and young people mistreated by Thomas More. He even feels sorry for the king, and for More. His sons, daughters, nephews and nieces love and respect him. His aim always seems to be to arrange things while doing the least harm to anybody, and yet he accepts that it is necessary when deaths occur, and shows little emotion over executions or death by plague. He is a consummate diplomat who knows how to deal with the moods of Henry, Anne, Queen Katherine and Princess Mary; and also with the temperamental Duke of Norfolk, the quixotic Cardinal Wolsey, and the martyr Thomas More.
In all this book illustrates how complex people’s characters and motives can be. In this life we’re impatient for things to happen, and easily bored by minute detail, and yet the most momentous events in history take years to unfold, and the details are the most important aspects.