An interesting question to ponder when thinking about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the significance of the title. While the place Wolf Hall, the family seat of the Seymour family, does get a few mentions it does not really function as a location. Wolves, however, are one of the subtle motifs running through the novel. As its protagonist remembers late in the book:
…homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.
Cover image (Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)
And, after reading the novel, it would be hard to refute this notion! Wolf Hall is set in England between 1500 and 1535, with most of the action taking place between 1527 and 1535. It deals primarily with the lead up to and first years of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, but as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Its plot centres on the machinations involved in dissolving Henry’s marriage to Katherine (Catherine) of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, so he could legally marry Anne Boleyn; its real subject matter, though, is far wider than that. Its time period – the early years of the English Reformation – and its plot mean that it deals with the major issues of the time, including England’s separation from Rome, the translation of the Bible into English and the relaxing of rules regarding access to the Bible, the Act of Supremacy, and succession to the throne. Running through this are the jostlings for power, the skullduggery, and the betrayals (and suprising acts of loyalty) that are the hallmarks of the Tudor Court. Man was indeed wolf to man then (and I sometimes wonder how much has changed?).
This is an exquisite – though large! – novel. It won the 2009 Booker Prize: I can’t compare it with the others because I haven’t read them, but I did enjoy this immensely. In my recent review of The enchantress of Florence – and what fascinating synchronicity to read these two in sequence – I said that the one word I would use to describe it was “paradoxical”. The word I would use for Wolf Hall is “subtle”. It is subtle in so many ways – in its narrative style, its humour, its irony, its symbolism, its descriptions, its juxtapositions. Nothing here is heavy-handed or overdone.
But first, its narrative style. I was forewarned about Mantel’s use of “he” in this novel and perhaps this helped, because I rarely found it difficult or confusing. In fact, I rather liked the style. It’s a bit like a first-person novel told in third person – third person subjective (limited) point of view, I guess – and so the use of “he” reminds us that it is HIS perspective we are getting. Everything we know we know through him, through his thoughts and through his interactions with others. I found this approach intriguing – it gave immediacy and distance at the same time. And this brings me to the man himself.
Thomas Cromwell, for those who don’t know their English history, rose from very humble beginnings to being Henry’s trusted chief minister. He did this by dint of his character and the timely beneficial patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. He became street-smart in his youth but he also educated himself in the culture (literature and art) of the times. He could speak Latin, Italian and French. He was an accountant and lawyer. He knew about trade. He was no slouch in the kitchen either. He was, indeed, a jack-of-all-trades. Here is a description early in the book (1527):
Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement … It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testamant in Latin … He is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcom, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury…
A man, that is, not to be trifled with – and yet he is a man who develops a large and loving household full of loyal children, relatives and “wards”. Some of the loveliest sections of the book are set in his home, Austin Friars. He is also loyal – sticking by Wolsey, for example, in his decline – and firm, hard even, but not cruel.
However, I don’t want this review to be as long as the book and so shall move on. I loved Mantel’s descriptions – they are always short but highly evocative. Here is the Duke of Norfolk:
The duke is now approaching sixty years old but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and cold as an axe-head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics…
And here is another telling description (after charges against Wolsey have been written):
It is a wan morning, low unbroken cloud; the light filtering sparely through the glass, is the colour of tarnished pewter. How brightly coloured the king is, like the king in a new pack of cards: how small his flat blue eye.
Delicious aren’t they?
The novel ends at an intriguing point – but I won’t give that away here except to say that it does not conclude with the end of Cromwell’s life. That, we believe, is the subject of a sequel.
I would love to keep writing about the characters, the language, the way Mantel puts it all together – such as the way she drops hints then explores them later – but that could become boring. Better for you to read the book (if you haven’t already). Instead, I will end with what is probably the book’s overarching theme – that of “how the world works”, and that is through machinations behind the scenes:
The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater…
It was ever thus, eh?
London: Fourth Estate, 2009
POSTSCRIPT: Steven, at A Momentary Taste of Being, posted a link to this fascinating article by Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell. It is well worth a read.