Saturday, 3 October 2009

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Henry the VIII’s England was a cruel and nasty place. It was a land where death came very fast, where the summer plague carried off many victims every year, where one could be burned at the stake for one’s belief. Reading the Bible in English (rather than in Latin) was a capital offence. Important men like Sir Thomas More wore hair shirts to punish themselves for their sins and earn merit in the eyes of God. The Tudor era was also a time of social mobility, when a butcher’s son or a blacksmith’s boy could become a cardinal or a lawyer. It was a period when trade with continental Europe flourished and the wind of reform initiated by Martin Luther blew into England.

Thomas must have been the most popular name during the Tudor era. There was a Thomas Wolsey, a Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer and a Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall is primarily Thomas Cromwell’s story, though the other three Thomases and the swashbuckling Henry the VIII play vital roles.

Thomas Cromwell is the son of a Putney blacksmith who thinks nothing of hitting his son on the head with a big block of wood (we are not too sure of this since the blow comes from behind) and then repeatedly kicking him, putting the victim, young Thomas, at risk of suffocating on his own vomit. Cromwell moves on, an inch at a time and gets to his sister’s place and sanctuary. Mantel turns the pages very fast and shows us a Cromwell who has become a lawyer and is the chief advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is rapidly falling out of favour with Henry the VIII since it is unable to get him a papal divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who bore him a series of children all of whom, except a sickly girl May, die very young. Henry is besotted with the scheming and wily Anne Boleyn and is also obsessed with the idea of having a male heir. All the people surrounding Henry (with the exception of Thomas More) want him to get what he wants – namely a divorce, their own progress depends on Henry doing well. Henry has convinced himself that he is legally entitled to a divorce. After all, he had married his brother Arthur’s wife and the Bible (Leviticus) does frown on such a practice and a special papal dispensation had been necessary for his first marriage to take place.

Wolsey is unable to deliver the divorce mainly because the Pope is practically a prisoner of other political powers and England’s relationship with such powers is frosty. However, Wolsey is removed from his post and dies on his way to his execution. Cromwell, totally amoral and very liberal, soon becomes Henry’s Chief Minister and chief advisor and plays a key role in breaking up with Rome and setting up the Church of England.

Hilary Mantel tells the story of Thomas Cromwell from 1527 to 1535, stopping much before Cromwell’s or even Anne Boleyn’s execution, using language that sounds so authentic that you are immediately transported to the England of the 1500s. Tudor history is well known and Mantel assumes that you have paid attention to your history lessons while at school and makes no effort to keep the story simple – the cast list alone runs to five pages. Wolf Hall is post-history story telling at its best, though this 650 page tome makes very slow reading, forcing the reader to pause every once in a while to absorb before moving on.

Mantel takes pains to show Cromwell as the exact opposite of Thomas More, who has at times (especially in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons), been depicted as a saint. A very reputed scholar and a man considered very intelligent, More is shown to be straitjacketed, especially in matters of faith, whilst Cromwell is open to persuasion from all sides. Cromwell is all along shown as a man who looks after himself and his family, unlike Thomas More who is shown as being nasty to his own children. Thomas More replaces Cardinal Wolsey as the Lord Chancellor, though his opposition to the split with Rome and Henry VIII’s divorce costs him his head. Cromwell tries to persuade More to change his mind, but ultimately plays a role in the trial that orders his execution.

In Mantel’s hands, Cromwell who has at times been described as cunning and calculating, comes across as a warm and open hearted liberal who unashamedly looks after his own welfare. For example, Mantel describes Thomas Cromwell’s abilities thus:

His legal practice is thriving, and he is able to lend money at interest, and arrange bigger loans, on the international market, taking a broker’s fee. The market is volatile - the news from Italy is never too good two days together – but as some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened, he has an eye for risk. A number of noblemen are indebted to him, not just for arranging loans, but for making their estates pay better. It is not a matter of exactions from tenants, but, in the first place, giving the landowner an accurate survey of land values, crop yield, water supply, built assets, and then assessing the potential of all these, next putting in bright people as estate managers, and with them setting up an accounting system that makes yearly sense and can be audited. Among the city merchants, he is in demand for his advice on trading partners overseas. He has a sideline in arbitration commercial disputes mostly, as his ability to assess the facts of a case and give a swift impartial decision is trusted here, in Calais and in Antwerp. If you and your opponent can at least concur on the need to save costs and delays of a court hearing, then Cromwell is, for a fee, your man; and he has the pleasant privilege, often enough, of sending away both sides happy.”

Cromwell is a man who can hide his anger and get along with people who are nasty to him, such the Dukes of Norfolk or Suffolk, so that he can get what he wants. Thomas More describes Cromwell’s character thus: “lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.” This description reminded me of Cark Gable/Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind playing cards with his jailers, though I don’t think rough and ready Cromwell was half as good looking as Clark Gable.

Cromwell gets along with Thomas Cranmer, the Boleyns’ family priest who has a few children on the side. No, Cromwell, does not pretend to like Cranmer who later ends up as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he actually likes him, especially the fact that he can’t control his desires despite being a priest.

The book is named after Wolf Hall, residence of Jane Seymour who was Henry’s third wife and succeeded Anne Boleyn. The reader is never taken to Wolf Hall, though it is referred to very often and ultimately, Thomas Cromwell is shown to be headed towards Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is one of the six books shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2009 and is the bookies’ favourite to win the Booker.


Book Addict said...

I've been wanting to read this book, but the reviews are very mixed.

Amritorupa Kanjilal said...

Vinod, have you started reading Bring Up The Bodies yet?

Winnowed said...

No, not yet. I think it'll take me a month before I get there.