By Philip Spires
History has a habit of not changing, but our ability to remake it in words is apparently endless. One might have thought that the tale of English King Henry The Eight’s wooing of Anne Boleyn has already been done to its death; but apparently not, for it is this encounter with blind self-obsession that forms the essential backdrop of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel, Wolf Hall. In Alan Bennett’s perhaps immortal words, history may just be one gerundive thing after another, and in this case the aphorism approaches the literal truth. But history is also about the perspective from which we view it, and in the case of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall we are offered that of one Thomas Cromwell (no relation) and this, surely, is the book’s making.
Cromwell was of lowly birth and even lower family life. Regularly beaten by his artisan father, he runs away from home in Putney, now in west London but then, perhaps, something of a rural outpost. Thus he sets off in search of his fame, fortune and, possibly, identity as well. These early formative travels are only scantily covered in Wolf Hall, since the book’s focus concerns the later period when Cromwell was influential in the grander events of his day. His time on the Continent, however, contributes to his learning, his mastery of language, his exposure to contemporary political and religious thought, his experience of peace and conflict. Intellectually he is remarkable and his judgment is both precise and telling. His political skills become brightly honed, but these are underpinned by a ruthlessness developed by a need to survive. He not only knows when to strike, but also how to twist the poniard to ensure quick resolution.
And thus, when he returns to Albion, by hook, crook, deed and word he ascends through the ranks of the courtly circle to occupy, eventually, the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. His hands are thus in the till, as well as on the tiller, for it is down to his manoeuvrings that Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon can be annulled, that the subsequent admission of a legal Anne Boleyn into the King’s bed can be arranged and eventually that an English church with the King at its head can separate from Rome.
Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell operates very much in the present, both in tense and possibility. Via his author’s words he becomes almost a journalist, but one with neither a journal of his own nor a publication to act as his medium. Though much happens frustratingly behind the scenes, Hilary Mantel regularly places us on the inside of scheming and intrigue to the extent that we often feel ourselves to be amongst the conspirators. Outcomes may often be as crude as they are unquestionably final, but the process of fixing the accusation to the victim is often nuanced, if not actually subtle. The plot, of course, is the one we know already, because this, after all, is history. It is, however, the mechanisms and stratagems that we crave and Wolf Hall delivers on both counts.
There are some surprising perspectives. A Saint (one doesn’t meet many) is cast as a bigoted liar and schemer, a two-faced ideologue who would not be out of place as a present-day child abuser. A painter who achieves eternal fame by representing more than his sitter’s image is cast as a masterly technician, but one who is also a keen judge of all things human. And in general we are continually surprised as to how much these ostensibly loyal servants and subjects plough their own furrows, guard their own ruts, some of which may be both deep and long, but only rarely straight.
Wolf Hall is a large book, but reads easily and with pace. We feel swept along on a tide, such that Cromwell himself seems to become just another part played. It seems that the general motion – even commotion – is always originated elsewhere, since there are always bigger issues at play. But these grander events are often the result of Cromwell’s stirring, storms generated by his butterfly wings.
And so heretics are burned at the stake for maintaining they are not cannibals; conspirators and saints alike lose their heads for falling out of line; and stray words are heard, recorded and filed so they can be used later in evidence. Nothing much seems to have changed over the years.
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