I’ve been an avid fan of historical fiction for most of my life. Some authors have always stood out to me as possessing an extraordinary talent. Margaret George, Mary Renault, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Philippa Gregory (at her best) are novelists who mange to evoke the power of the past. By this I don’t simply mean the tired old expression of “bringing the past to life;” instead, I mean something much more vibrant and intense. These authors help us to understand not just what the past looked like, but also how history happens, how individuals contend with the deeper social and cultural currents that often create the nexus through which history takes place.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel manages to not only bring the strangeness of the Tudor world to brilliant and scathing life, but also show how a pivotal period in the development of England. Admittedly, this is a period that has been fictionalized more than perhaps any other (especially in recent years), so managing to make this period shine in any sort of significantly new way should be lauded as an accomplishment. Mantel does just that, allowing the reader to get the sense that this is a dark, dreary, and ultimately very dangerous world, where children are subject to the brutality of their fathers and even the most devoted servant (or wife) of the king is likewise subject to his caprice. Reading Wolf Hall, one does get the sense that this world is one that teeters on the brink of tremendous social and political change, with Cromwell emerging as the harbinger of that change, a man who is thoroughly modern in his outlook and who helps to set in motion the changes that will move England squarely out of the Renaissance proper and into the modern world.
One of the things that makes this novel so endlessly enjoyable is its subtle employment of a certain dry and sly wit. While Cromwell does have moments of emotional depth–as when he loses his wife and his daughters to the sweating sickness–far more of the narrative actually involves him utilizing his sense of humour to make sense of the world around him. Whether it’s poking fun at Thomas Wriothesley, jokingly calling him “Call-Me-Risley” (or “Call-Me for short), puncturing the holier-than-thou egotism of the tyrannical Thomas More, Cromwell controls his world by adopting a superior stance to it, or referring to the blustering Duke of Norfolk as “Uncle Norfolk,” Cromwell allows the thoroughly modern reader to judge and critique this world where the old ways of doing things no longer make sense. The old ways die hard, the novel suggests, but that does not mitigate the fact that they are, in fact, on their deathbed.
Nor Henry does not emerge from this story as anything even remotely resembling a hero. The Henry VIII of Wolf Hall is endlessly vacillating and cruel. While he may have a certain charisma and intellectual acuity, he still depends on those around him, such as Wolsey and Cromwell, to get him what he wants. Like almost all of the other royal and noble characters, Henry seems like something of a holdover from the period of his youth, a reminder of an earlier period whose last vestiges are slowly being shed by the England over which he rules.
If I have one complaint to make about this novel, it is its portrayal of Anne Boleyn. As Susan Bordo demonstrates in her wonderful book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Mantel slips all too easily into the long-standing tradition of painting Henry’s second queen as a bloodthirsty, iron-hard, and manipulative shrew, juxtaposing all of this to both Katherine’s saintliness and maturity and Jane Seymour’s innocence and youth. There are a moments when one does feel a glimmer of sympathy for Anne–how could one not, when she is constantly being pushed in various directions by everyone around her? Like Katherine before her and Jane after, Anne knows that her well-being, and indeed her life, depend on Henry’s good graces. Her pensive and shrewish personality, it seems, are the logical result of these unbearable pressures.
Although he is certainly the hero of this novel, and though the entire work is told from his limited perspective, I emerged from this novel feeling that Thomas Cromwell was even more an enigma. While much of what he does is motivated, at least in part, either by a displaced attempt to separate himself from his father or to avenge the fall of Wolsey, the real Cromwell always seems to lurk at the edges of Mantel’s prose, enticing with his enigmatic inaccessibility. If I have one complaint to make of the novel’s portrayal of Cromwell, it is that he emerges from this story a little too perfect, a little too precocious and subtle. I am reminded of Mary Renault’s portrayal of Alexander, which also lionized her subject. But perhaps that lionization is for Mantel, as for Renault, the necessary part of bringing a great man to literary life.