Goodreads: Wolf Hall
Series: Thomas Cromwell #1
Desperate for an heir, King Henry VIII charges Cardinal Wolsey with persuading the pope to declare his marriage to Katherine of Aragon invalid so he can wed Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell, though the son of a blacksmith, stands ready to step into the void when his master Wolsey fails. Though the nobles at court long to see the downfall of such a social upstart, Cromwell impassively gathers to himself all the court’s secrets, becoming in the process Henry’s most indispensable servant.
Wolf Hall brings Tudor England to life as it traces the rise of Thomas Cromwell his murky origins as the son of a blacksmith to this role as the power behind the throne. In the process, Hilary Mantel reinterprets English history, presenting Cromwell as an unlikely hero pitted against the powers of Catholicism and the decidedly (in this version of events) hateful Thomas More. The result may inspire controversy, but it is fascinating.
A winner of the Man Booker Prize, Wolf Hall possesses all of those elements so likely to garner critical acclaim–a literary style, complex characterization, and a faint air of finding life to be largely dirty and full of suffering. The general reader, however, I suspect, may not be so quickly enamored of these elements. For at times, Mantel seems to be striving too hard to sound literary–one can sense her struggle now and then to make a sentence sound poetic, an ending artistic. And her characterizations are often so complex as to obscure the characters altogether–after 600 pages, Thomas Cromwell’s motivations and deepest thoughts still remain unclear and he’s the protagonist! And the entire atmosphere of the book reeks of filth and sin and backroom dealings. There’s only so much of such distasteful things that one can take in one sitting.
I observed all of this while reading Wolf Hall, and yet I still found myself fascinated. I could overlook the stylistic imperfections easily enough and I could deal with the tainted atmosphere by interspersing my readings of the book with lighter fare. As for Cromwell remaining enigmatic–why that is exactly what kept me going! My longing for him to let down his guard, to acknowledge his true feelings to himself if to no one else, made the book interesting even when the plot did not advance for chapters. Cromwell, and not Tudor England or Henry VIII’s divorce, is the heart of this novel.
However, though I accepted the enigmatic personality of Cromwell, I found myself disappointed by how little individuality the other characters expressed. The majority of them seemed to talk and to think the same. If anyone were to extract dialogue from the text and ask me to guess which character said the line, I doubt I could answer correctly. Few characters have a unique enough voice to make it easy to differentiate–a problem compounded by Mantel’s use of the pronoun “he” to refer to various characters during a scene. Though generally “he” refers to Cromwell, at times Mantel switches to another character, without ever using a proper name first to indicate such a change. This means that a reader may have to go back and reread a scene once or twice simply to figure out who could possibly be saying which lines of dialogue.
I also found that very few of the characters were likable, aside from Cromwell, whom Mantel somehow manages to make sympathetic even though he plays the dirty games of intrigue and compromises his morality like anyone else at court. This makes me wonder why almost no one else gets a pass. Anne Boleyn is portrayed as a lying hussy. Princess Mary is stubborn and disagreeable. Katherine is stubborn and a fool. Jane Seymour is kind, but a shriveling and weak. The men are generally blustering, greedy, ready to sell their women for advancement, etc.
That brings us to Thomas More, Cromwell’s main antagonist. I don’t doubt that many portrayals of More have been oversimplified–the narrative of how he stood by his conscience when the rest of England sold theirs to curry political favor has overshadowed anything he may or may not have done in opposing the Protestant Reformation (my understanding is that he was rumored to use torture tactics, an accusation he denied). However, while reading, I could not help but suspect that Mantel’s interpretation stems not from a desire to add complexity to his character, but from a dislike of Catholicism. She portrays More as torturing victims, abusing the women in his household, and being generally close-minded, a hypocrite to his own ideals, and unnecessarily rude. Most striking of all, in this version of events, More’s refusal to acknowledge Henry as the head of the church is portrayed not as a matter of conscience, but pigheaded stubbornness and foolishness–apparently the wise do what Cromwell does, which is to give the king whatever he wants so as to preserve both life and political stability.
Of course, an author may portray More as she likes in historical fiction, but my suspicion of bias against Catholicism was confirmed by many asides passed by Cromwell against Catholicism in general–the stupidity of believing in the Real Presence, accusations of small-mindedness, a focus on all the abuses perpetrated and no mention of any good ever done by anyone associated with the Church. I could have accepted these statements as a reflection of Cromwell’s thoughts–after all, if he’s breaking with the Church, there must be things he does not like about it or agree with it on, and he can choose to express those thoughts obscenely or rudely, if that’s his character. However, the statements often seemed ill-placed and rather too numerous; they sprang not from events in the book but at random and everywhere. In short, they seemed not to be Cromwell’s musings at all, but rather messages from Mantel.
Most striking of all, however, in the apparent anti-Catholic bias is the treatment Cromwell receives in comparison to More. When More executes a Lutheran, the narrative portrays him as evil and a hypocrite to Christian charity. When Cromwell executes a Catholic, the story rather suggests that it was a regrettable necessity. Maybe even that the Catholic had it coming. Again, I don’t expect a book about a champion of the Protestant Reformation to show Cromwell lauding the Church he’s breaking with. I do, however, expect a little more nuance.
Aside from the obvious anti-Catholic bias seemingly perpetuated by the author and the disagreeable nature of almost all the characters, I did find myself enjoying Wolf Hall. It’s not that the narrative is surprising–we all know what happens to Katherine. Rather, it is simply intriguing to see the story from Cromwell’s perspective. He is an outsider, an upstart. A man who will do whatever it takes to advance. He has no morals and he’s proud of it. Whether readers like him or no, he provides a one-of-a-kind look at the workings of Henry VIII’s court.