I may be a year late in saying so, but I think Mantel thoroughly deserves her 2009 Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. It is a terrific book.
It is an imagined account, based on fact, of the rise of Thomas Cromwell from poverty and obscurity to wealth and power in the court of Henry VIII of England between 1527and 1535, though the story actually begins in 1500 when Cromwell is about 15. The book outlines Cromwell’s work in achieving Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the separation of England from Papal authority, with Henry becoming Supreme Head of the Church in England.
What is so compelling about this? There are a number of things. This is a fascinating period, when revolutionary changes are taking place in England. Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible, brought clandestinely into the country, is raising questions about the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church. ‘Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory’. Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says ‘Pope’, muses Cromwell. Old feudal relationships are giving way to mercantile capitalism; the world is now run ‘Not from castle walls, but from counting houses’. And administrative and legal changes are creating England as a nation state, ruled by the King through Parliament, rather than deriving legitimacy from the Pope. Cromwell is both a product and an architect of these changes. How could his life not be interesting?
Only in such times could a man like Cromwell rise to the top. ‘I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the history of this realm’, says Henry. But it takes a man with extraordinary capacities to seize this opportunity. Mantel’s Cromwell is ‘at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury’. He knows how to bully, threaten and cajole. He is said to resemble ‘one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes’; he worries he looks ‘like a murderer’. He is a loving husband and father to an extended family. And somehow, no one is quite sure how, he becomes necessary to the King.’”Damn it all, Cromwell,”’ says the Duke of Norfolk, ‘”why are you such a … person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.”’ A fully rounded, likeable person is what Mantel has created.
Then there is her mastery of detail about everyday life – and death. What they wore, what they ate, the plagues they died of, the executions they witnessed; all this is done without any parade of scholarship, though with great authority.
The book is written in the present tense. Some critics don’t like this, but I think it adds immediacy to the story. Because the action is so closely tied to Cromwell, the ‘he’ is sometimes ambiguous, which can be slightly annoying. The language is modern. Can a commoner touch the King? Yes, to stop him falling in the mud. ‘That’s one question answered. In case of peril, you may pick him up. Fish him out. Whatever.’ But there is also awareness of the idiom of the time, as in ‘”The old king bred, and by the help of Heaven he bred sons”’. Mantel is a master of language.
Writing about real people brings its own challenges. Most readers will have at least a vague idea of what happened at this time, and further information is only a mouse click away. If you don’t know, there is the suspense of a story unfolding. If you do, there is a different kind of tension: that arising when the reader knows about future events of which the characters are necessarily unaware. I’m not sure whether knowing or not knowing is better. The title ‘Wolf Hall’ really only makes sense if you do know what the future is to bring. But never fear, Mantel is working on a sequel.
If you want to find out more about Hilary Mantel, click here. There are less sympathetic versions of Cromwell: try Robert Hutchinson’s Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. If you can’t bear not knowing what happened, there are many sites that will tell you, but you could start here.