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Monday, November 15, 2010

Thomas Cromwell: be thou my vision (oh, you already are): Wolf Hall my lovelies

It is nice to know that sometimes, things are all that they are cracked up to be. Viva Wolf Hall is what I say, although I do, as you might suspect, have more to say than that. For those of you who have somehow avoided it, Wolf Hall is Hilary Mantel’s prize winning, literary talk inspiring doorstep of a novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, right hand man to Henry VIII in the small matter of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his establishment as head of the Church in England.

And it is fair to say that Thomas Cromwell has never had it so good than he has between the covers of this book (apart from possibly in life, of which, more later). Rather than a distasteful politico and Machiavellian schemer who stabbed his boss in the back and connived at the brutal murders of numerous principled old people eventually to die himself at the axe by which he had lived, he is, well, something rather different. Here, in Wolf Hall, he is a trailblazer of humble origin; the king’s fixer; an intellectual man of humanity; a foot soldier in the army of Christ. We are always hearing about the Renaissance man, here is a modern man; a thinker and an advocate; person of reason who we can all understand. Historically, Thomas Cromwell has never known promotion like it.

An outrage on history you might think. On the other hand, you might think that this is a brave new account. I would probably plump for something betwixt. I do wonder if this elevation of Cromwell smacks a bit of the anti Catholicism which is all to familiar in English historiography. At the same time, the Thomas Cromwell of legend is clearly far too much of a pantomime villain. What is brave about Wolf Hall, and what I love about it is how Mantel picks apart the pantomime elements of Henry VIII’s court – the subterfuges which have been all too easy to believe in.

Thomas More – the “man for all seasons” – she picks apart as a sort of counter point to Thomas Cromwell. To history Thomas More is a principled man of intellect; a crusader against the wind of power and a renaissance man of the family: he respected his daughter you know, so he must have been modern. Mantel wonders about this, and she sort of sets up the idea of the More family as a historical truth that might not be true. Maybe he was a principled man but a shocking husband? Who knows; I think that might be the point. She talks about “the family on the wall” as depicted by Hans Holbein and invites the reader to disbelieve in its unity. How inviting that is.

One of my favourite elements of the novel is the rather exhilarating and wholly historically unjustified elevation of Mary Boleyn. In addition to being an adorable whore with a heart of gold and a good-time-girl trapped in the wrong era, Mary fixes her sights upon Cromwell. What an odd thing for Mantel to have imagined. I wonder if the idea is that Mary and Cromwell were both inveterate outsiders; she the Queen’s trial run sister; he the boot boy made good – why should they not be interested in one another?

In other aspects, Wolf Hall is none too revolutionary in its historical view. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk is played as an upper class thug with a brain that you could lose on your way to the bus stop; Charles Brandon is a sex and status obsessed thickie; Anne Boleyn is a bit on the self regarding side. Of Henry VIII, maybe the less said, the better. A wonderful summary runs as follows: “he needs to be on the side of the light. He is not a man like you, who can just pack his sins in his saddlebags and carry them from country to country, and when they grow too heavy whistles up a mule or two, and soon commands a train of them and a troop of muleteers”.

Although Wolf Hall is called a historical novel, I would call it a psychological one. Cromwell is a narrator haunted by visions and memories and motivated by deprivations and abuses. He seems to be pondering (for 650 pages, but then again, it could have been more), the nature of submission and the trap that guilt and collusion with corruption creates for the soul. A candid moment in the narrative runs thus: “one fear creates a dereliction, the offence brings on a greater fear, and there comes a point where the fear is too great and the human spirit just gives up and a child wanders off numb and directionless and ends up following a crowd and watching a killing”.

As usual, there are lots of interesting opinions, including at Books Please, Babbette’s Book Blog, Vulpes Libris, the fabulous 3:17am and one of my favourite favourite internet places: Harriet Devine’s Blog. I have included pictures of the tome itself (at Hever Castle, no less), Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More (and family – for this is all about “the family on the wall”) – and to link one advocate to another – Hilary Mantel.

16 comments:

  1. Nothing has ever made this book more interesting to me than these lines: "An outrage on history you might think. On the other hand, you might think that this is a brave new account. I would probably plump for something betwixt." It has been on my wishlist for ages, and will now move even more to the top.

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  2. Excellent review, Hannah! I received Wolf Hall for Christmas last year, and am embarrassed because I haven't read it yet. Better get going or nobody will give me books this year ;-)

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  3. What an insightful review Hannah! I loved Wolf Hall - especially how Mantel has used her imagination to make Cromwell feel like real flesh and blood on the page (instead of a hackneyed stereotype). Agree this is definitely Cromwell PR though!

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  4. As you say, everything it's cracked up to be and a worthy winner of so many prizes. I found it interesting to read Cavendish's Life of Wolsey which was Hilary Mantel's starting point - very quick and vivid to read, and text available online if you google.

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  5. A fabulous and studied review - far more coherent than I could have managed! I loved the book and Cromwell's character as represented throughout - it could be argued that Mantel did for Cromwell the same as other's have done for More, Henry, Anne et al throughout history: created another version of a renowned persona. Both he and More were men of their time and to judge them by today's standards is a wasted exercise.
    Did you read Mantel's account of her illness in the Guardian by the way? Quite different and shocking.

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  6. I bought this book when it first came out and have been dying to read it for so long! I am stuck under a huge pile of things to be read, and I simply must make the time for this book. I think it would be interesting to see another side of Cromwell, as the impression I have of him now is not terribly glowing. I loved your very eloquent review and am so glad that you enjoyed the book. I look forward to reading it again, after I have finished the book!

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  7. A book that has been toying with me since I first learnt of it and here with your insightful review I think that it is sure to be a read for me come the new year. I was anxious to read what you thought of it and am so appreciative of such a well done review. Thank you.

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  8. I loved this book so much. For once the literary elite were quite correct in lauding so much praise on a novel.

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  9. I loved the book . . . and I love this review! Insightful and fascinating . . . has me thinking I want to reread the book. :)

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  10. Wolf Hall is the best book I've read this year and your review is excellent. It's got me wanting to reread the book too. :)

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  11. Snap!! I am reading it at the moment and mentioned it on a post last week.

    Fantastic review! So interesting and full of additional information and photos. I hope that you fully realise your talent.

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  12. Your lovely review has made me look forward to reading Wolf Hall! I promised myself I would wait till next month before I bought my copy but now I can't wait!

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  13. Ahh, I'm so desperate to read this. Your review makes me even moreso! But I'm so stupidly contrary when it comes to reading - if something is hyped up, I will delight in NOT reading it. Silly, I know. But this one I do want to read - and various other novels I've heard of by Hilary Mantel, too. I"ve read several articles she's written for various publications and they have all been fantastically well written. I think I would need to improve my historical knowledge of the time-period before reading this though, or I'd probably miss a lot of the detail in it.
    Your description of Mary Boleyn did make me laugh!

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  14. This was a great review. The book is going on the lengthy tbr list. I love this period of history. I had an ancestor who was in Henry VIII's court.

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  15. I've been putting it off, because of its sheer size, but you have convinced me. Wolf Hall here I come.

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  16. I am so disappointed that Mary had not actually set her sights(in her green tights) on Cromwell as the book describes! I'm half way through and was wondering how historically accurate some of the references are. Great review.

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