Expectations can be tricky things: sometimes the actual experience of reading a novel, while perfectly fine, doesn't live up to one's preconceptions in some way, while on the other hand, negative buzz around a title can delay a wonderful read for years. So it's a kind of a cool change of pace to find, for once, pretty much exactly the reading experience I had envisioned in cracking open Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I was bargaining on a lush, character-driven treatment of Thomas Cromwell and the beginning of the English Reformation, and that's exactly what I got: a complex, rousing story whose nuanced characterization provided plenty of narrative tension, despite the fact that I already knew from history class how the basic plot points must play out.
Indeed, the rise and fall of Henry VIII's love for Anne Boleyn, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and the separation of the Church of England from Church of Rome exercises a powerful hold over the popular imagination; I am aware of fictional retellings from the point of view of Anne herself in the film Anne of a Thousand Days; as an ensemble piece in the contemporary Showtime drama The Tudors; with an eye to Mary Boleyn (I assume?) in The Other Boleyn Girl; and from the Thomas More angle in A Man for All Seasons. I'll admit up front that I've never totally understood the lasting appeal of the Anne/Henry story, which is often presented in broad strokes: "Henry boldly breaks up the Church for love," goes one plotline, or "Thomas More is a man of principle who will not compromise and sticks to the Way of Right."
To her credit, Mantel's portrait of the times is much more nuanced, and, to me at least, infinitely more appealing and satisfying as a result. The English Reformation did not come out of left field as an isolated response to Henry's lust for a woman other than his wife or even his desire for a male heir. Mantel evokes convincingly the feeling of theological unrest—even chaos—during these years: the way that excitement and wonder at the influx of new ideas (a heliocentric universe, an English Bible, a host which is nothing more than bread) battled with fear at the torture and death that awaited heretics. With the theological ground shifting radically over the course of just a few years, avoiding a heretic's death was not a simple matter.
Ashes, dry bread. England was always, the cardinal says, a miserable country, home to an outcast and abandoned people, who are working slowly toward their deliverance, and who are visited by God with special tribulations. If England lies under God's curse, or some evil spell, it has seemed for a time that the spell has been broken, by the golden king and his golden cardinal. But those golden years are over, and this winter the sea will freeze; the people who see it will remember it all their lives.
Accustomed to the Man for All Seasons view of events (e.g., Saint Thomas More as Man of Principle, beloved of commoners and bravely defiant in the face of the King's self-interested heresy), Mantel's focus on the rivalry between More and Thomas Cromwell, her protagonist, was intriguing to me. As I've mentioned before, I'm fascinated by More's Utopia and his biography, but I've always felt uncomfortable with such a wholly congratulatory portrait of him, for exactly the reasons Mantel spotlights: he was a religious extremist who believed he was morally and theologically justified in torturing confessions out of suspected heretics, a learned humanist who was also a cruelly condescending snob, a lover of worldly comforts who also scourged himself with a cat-o-nine-tails. Mantel doesn't slight any of these varied aspects of More's character, and she sets his medievalism against her depiction of the more opportunistic, modern-feeling, but equally complicated, Thomas Cromwell. She paints neither man as wholly admirable—both are bullies, both are self-interested, both can be cruel—but the interplay between their world-views is fascinating, as are the shifting power dynamics between them as Cromwell's star rises and More's sets.
He never sees More--a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod--without wanting to ask him, what's wrong with you? Or what's wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you've learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, 'Purgatory.' Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says 'Pope.'
Thomas More says that the imperial troops, for their enjoyment, are roasting live babies on spits. Oh, he would! says Thomas Cromwell. Listen, soldiers don't do that. They're too busy carrying away everything they can turn into ready money.
Mantel's Cromwell is, despite his obvious self-interest, despite his status as more or less a tough and a usurer, undeniably compelling, and I think a large part of this appeal is how "modern" the character feels. This is dangerous territory for a work of historical fiction: so easily, a character intended to appeal to the reader's modern sympathies can turn into an anachronistic mess. The reason it works with Cromwell, I think, in addition to Mantel's wealth of detail and solid writing style, is that the Renaissance actually WAS, in many ways, the beginning of what we now call "modernity." Many of the qualities exemplified by Mantel's Cromwell really WERE beginning to be rewarded in Renaissance times more than they had been previously: his pragmatism; his flexibility; his wide worldly experience and ability to extrapolate from it; his openness to new ideas and the way he is able to combine some degree of faith with confidence in the efficacy of his own mind. He believes he is able to read the Bible and draw conclusions from it himself; he is hungry for knowledge from whatever source he can find. Possibly most significantly, he understands the workings of portable currency and international trade, which in the 1530s was an area of exponentially expanding importance, in the process of overtaking the old feudal, land-based systems of wealth.
How can he explain to him [Harry Percy]? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page or the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and the shot.
Cromwell is an outsider, a man of low birth who has served as a soldier and a merchant in foreign lands, and Mantel gives a nuanced view of the interplay between him and the established court order in all its incestuous complexity. Incest is, in fact, a recurring theme in the novel: Henry claims that his marriage to Catherine was void because incestuous (her first husband was his brother), while Cromwell himself has an affair with the sister of his beloved late wife. Even the book's title gestures toward the family seat of the Seymours, where Sir John Seymour is caught in an adulterous affair with his daughter-in-law. It is also, of course, the home of the King's next, future wife, Jane Seymour, who remarks late in the novel, "Incest is so popular these days!" On a less literal note, of course, the sense of claustrophobia at court is almost palpable, with burned bridges or long-ago alliances looming around corners unexpectedly.
There is so much more to say about this novel—I particularly liked Mantel's use of houses (Wolsey's place in Westminster, Cromwell's Austin Friars, Thomas More's Chelsea establishment, Hatfield where the young princesses are kept) as embodiments of the waxing or waning influence of different players, and as gestures to the past or future—Anne's contemptuous statement that "They don't know what continence means, down at Wolf Hall" is counter-balanced by the final line of the book: "To Wolf Hall," as the streams of influence alter their courses. Just one of the many details lovely to watch in the unfolding.
Thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program for sending me a copy of Wolf Hall!