February 13, 2015 4:23 pm
“Try always,” says the worldly Cardinal Wolsey in “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s fictional portrait of Henry VIII’s turbulent court, “to find out what people wear under their clothes.” Katherine of Aragon, the queen who can’t produce an heir, wears a nun’s habit. Anne Boleyn, the tease eager to supplant her, won’t let the king know what she’s wearing until their wedding night; she says “yes, yes, yes” to him, “then she says no.” Thomas More, willing to go to any lengths to prevent the marriage, wears a shirt of bristling horsehair, which mortifies his flesh until the sores weep. As for Thomas Cromwell, the fixer who does the king’s dirty work just as he once did the cardinal’s, what is he hiding under his lawyer’s sober winter robes? Something “impermeable,” Hans Holbein suspects as he paints Cromwell’s forbidding portrait. Armor, maybe, or stone.
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Cromwell is the picaresque hero of the novel — tolerant, passionate, intellectually inquisitive, humane. We follow his winding quest in vivid present-tense flashbacks, drawn up from his own prodigious memory: how he left home before he was 15, escaping the boot of his abusive father, a brewer and blacksmith who beat him as if he were “a sheet of metal”; how he dreamed of becoming a soldier and went to France because “France is where they have wars.” Cromwell learns banking in Florence, trading in Antwerp. He marries, has children and watches helplessly as the plague decimates his family.
In short, Cromwell learns everything everywhere, at a time when European knowledge about heaven and earth, via Copernicus and Machiavelli, is exploding. At 40, he “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” He knows the entire New Testament by heart, having mastered the Italian “art of memory” (part of the inner world of Renaissance magic that Mantel drew on in her comic novel “Fludd”), in which long lines of speech are fixed in the mind with vivid images.
Cromwell is also, as Mantel sees him, a closet Protestant, monitoring Luther’s battles with Rome and exchanging secret letters with Tyndale, the English translator of the Bible, about the “brutal truth” of the Scriptures. “Why does the pope have to be in Rome?” Cromwell wonders. “Where is it written?” Historians have long suspected that Cromwell harbored Protestant sympathies, even before Anne Boleyn’s “resistant, quick-breathing and virginal bosom” caught the king’s eye. Mantel, with the novelist’s license, draws the circle more tightly. As a child, Cromwell is present when an old woman is burned at the stake for heresy: “Even after there was nothing left to scream, the fire was stoked.” Years later, he watches in disgust as Thomas More rounds up more heretics to feed to the fire. For Mantel, who acknowledges her debt to revisionist scholars, Henry’s divorce is the impetus for Cromwell’s “Tudor Revolution,” as the historian Geoffrey Elton called it, by which the British state won independence from foreign and ecclesiastic rule.
In “Wolf Hall” it is More, the great imaginer of utopia, who is the ruthless tormenter of English Protestants, using the rack and the ax to set the “quaking world” aright. “Utopia,” Cromwell learns early on, “is not a place one can live.” More’s refusal to recognize Henry’s marriage was the basis for his canonization in 1935, as well as his portrayal as a hero of conscience in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” and its 1966 screen version. To Mantel’s Cromwell, More is in love with his own martyrdom, his own theatrical self-importance, while Cromwell, more in keeping with the spirit of Bolt’s title, seeks a way out for his old rival.
There’s a tense moment when More, locked in the Tower of London awaiting trial for treason, claims to have harmed no one. Cromwell explodes. What about Bainham, a mild man whose only sin was that he was a Protestant? “You forfeited his goods, committed his poor wife to prison, saw him racked with your own eyes, you locked him in Bishop Stokesley’s cellar, you had him back at your own house two days chained upright to a post, you sent him again to Stokesley, saw him beaten and abused for a week, and still your spite was not exhausted: you sent him back to the Tower and had him racked again.” Tortured, Bainham names names, who happen to be friends of Cromwell’s. “That’s how the year goes out, in a puff of smoke, a pall of human ash.”
In her long novel of the French Revolution, “A Place of Greater Safety,” Mantel also wrote about the damage done by utopian fixers. And surely the current uproar over state-sponsored torture had its effect on both the writing and the imagining of “Wolf Hall.” Yet, although Mantel adopts none of the archaic fustian of so many historical novels — the capital letters, the antique turns of phrase — her book feels firmly fixed in the 16th century. Toward the end of the novel, Cromwell, long widowed and as usual overworked, “the man in charge of everything,” falls in love with Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to Boleyn, and considers spending a few days at the gothic-sounding Seymour estate called Wolf Hall. What could go wrong with such an innocent plan? Perhaps in a sequel Mantel will tell us.
Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly. “Wolf Hall” has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike. Trained in the law, Mantel can see the understated heroism in the skilled administrator’s day-to-day decisions in service of a well-ordered civil society — not of a medieval fief based on war and not, heaven help us, a utopia. “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power,” Cromwell reflects. “Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” is both spellbinding and believable.