Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is simply wonderful. The novel is very long and patiently paced (it may seem slow to those used to a more rapid keening of events). It is enthralling, a falling into a world so completely that when I looked up from the book I felt disoriented and strange: what century was I in? The novel is beautifully rich, full, and lively with images, characters, places, and happenings. The happenings take place between the years 1500 and 1535, and the characters are of the world of Thomas Cromwell during his ascent in power and prestige during the reign of Henry VIII. All the hot people are in the mix, the first Queen Katherine, Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk (who would chafe at Cromwell’s power and bring him down — but not in this book), Sir Thomas More (saint no more in Mantel’s version of events), Martin Luther, Pope Clement, and religious reformers William Tyndale and Stephen Vaughan.
Cromwell’s individual relationships with these key characters of 16th century England are the basis of this marvelous novel. Told from Cromwell’s viewpoint but not from his point of view, Mantel holds the narration in third person, keeping the reader always at a remove, much as Cromwell himself kept those around him at a safe distance. As much as we learn of Cromwell, he is not our friend nor do we get the sense that anyone really was his friend. There was certainly no friendship between More and Cromwell. Mantel has Cromwell confront More, calling him “a vain and glorious man, and …a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification.”
At one point, More is quoted as saying, “it hardly makes a man a hero, to agree to stand and burn once he is chained to a stake.“ What does it take to make a man a hero? Certainly not More, who in Mantel’s novel is rigid in his condemnations and frigid in his affections towards all excepting his daughter Meg. More condemned and tortured men, women, and children, all in the name of the one true religion, Roman Catholicism, and, in Mantel’s view, Cromwell sought to expiate the power of religion and sever the hold of Rome, not only for the sake of Henry VIII’s desires but also for the good of England. For Mantel, Cromwell is the hero of his turbulent era. He is loyal, smart, steady, and generous: “Obstacles will be removed, tempers will be soothed, knots unknotted… his spirit is sturdy, his will strong, his front imperturbable…He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world…”
Cromwell is also a man who understands his own mortality: “we are always dying — I while I write, you while you read, and others while they listen or block their ears — they are all dying.” Cromwell understands the impermanence of what the wolves at court are fighting over. Everyone around him desires immortality — whether through an heir or power or money or religion — and through their desire, Cromwell controls them.
Where does the title Wolf Hall come from? Perhaps from the fact that Henry VIII’s court was a hall of wolves amidst whom never could a back be turned, a secret whispered, or a vulnerability displayed. Cromwell refers to wolves as being absent from England but he is speaking of the animal only: in the world of politics and sex and religion, the intertwined world of Henry VIII, wolves dominate. Cromwell quotes the Latin phrase “homo homini lupus,” (“man is a wolf to his fellow man”) to explain the actions of the players around him.
“Wolf Hall” was also the name of the estate of the Seymour family, and loci of a scandalous case of incest and lust, a symbol of the times as old rules of behavior and loyalty faded out and new rules, a new church, and a new scrutiny worked their way to prominence. And Wolf Hall was the home base of the retiring Jane Seymour, herself destined to be wife to Henry VIII. In this book she is Cromwell’s secret crush, a girl of innocence amidst a world of noisy bargaining and jostling and backstabbing, but her future is hinted at in the final sentence of the novel. Could we have a sequel, please? Perhaps told from Jane Seymour’s viewpoint?
Cromwell for far too long has been displayed as a heartless, conniving manipulator of fortune and fate. Mantel reworks Cromwell into a man of great intelligence, heart, and fortitude. Towards the end of the novel, Cromwell muses that the living chase the dead: “we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.” Mantel has done a magnificent and convincing job chasing down Cromwell and presenting him to us, as Hans Holbein did in painting Cromwell when he was alive, as a man who was strong, imposing, and invulnerable. Mantel adds in the layers of sensitivity and humanity to paint the man inside and out. The portraits of both Mantel and Holbein may not be wholly accurate but I believe they are fitting. The portrait can be seen at the Frick Collection in New York; the novel can be found wherever books are sold, lent, or borrowed. Wolf Hall is a great book and a must read.