July 2009

Arts & Letters

Tudor Style

By Peter Craven
Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’

It must be an abyss to contemplate the historical novel set in Tudor times. It’s not so much that the job has been done with such splendour in days gone by: Ford Madox Ford’s The Fifth Queen, about Catherine Howard, or Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun, about Shakespeare, are not enough in themselves to promote spasms of influence anxiety. It’s more that the Tudors are that part of the matter of England that’s permanently in the air.

Hilary Mantel’s sumptuous and densely imagined new novel, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 672pp; $33), is about as ambitious an attempt as could be made to write a literary novel about the bloody events of this stretch of history. The book focuses on Thomas Cromwell, one of the supreme political and controversial intelligences of the age. The story takes him from his maltreatment by his brute of a father, through his apprenticeship to Cardinal Wolsey to his prosecution of Thomas More, and just beyond. The canvas is dark-hued and cross-textured; the narrative episodic, complex and confusing (to such an extent that the novel opens with a War and Peace-style cast of characters). It’s a big book and yet you could imagine Mantel writing another volume just as long: she seems no more to have finished with her antihero than history has.

Thomas Cromwell – not to be confused with the more famous Oliver, the Cromwell who cut off Charles I’s head, 100 years later, and ruled England during its only republican phase – is the all-presiding consciousness of this pageant. A hundred lords and ladies, servants and retainers flock about him, but it’s Cromwell who remains centre stage. He had worked as a mercenary in Europe and as a merchant in Italy. He knows his Machiavelli and is sympathetic to Tyndale and the reading of the vernacular Bible. He becomes immensely rich and powerful. But the book’s emphasis is on Cromwell as a supreme political intelligence, successfully riding the tide of every exigency. It is a remarkable portrait, conceived with curious warmth for the man who plundered abbeys and destroyed more.

There is a charismatic but merciful Wolsey who, when one of Henry VIII’s aristocratic thugs comes with the dreaded news of his fall from grace, says that he is not afraid to look any man in the face. There is a French-educated, black-eyed ice-witch of an Anne Boleyn, who remains credible in her every vengeful mood; and an entirely believable, if flatly conceived, Henry, who is full of feeling and takes his own elephantine ruthlessness for granted. There are crusty old lords, dripping with the prejudice of their class (the Duke of Norfolk is superbly sketched) and there are all sorts of subtle and gliding women who know about tumbles in the hay and treacheries and making do in a cut-throat world where marriages are stitched up but there’s still action to be got.

There’s a crazy fraudulent maid, a young nun who prophesies the death and downfall of the King and a young monk who refuses, despite Cromwell’s best endeavours, to escape from death at the stake.

In many ways it’s a believable world, superbly orchestrated, Brueghelesque in density, and evoked in meticulous and pungent detail. The style is often briskly dramatic, full of the echoes of history and tactfully open to its innuendos. At times there is overt chiaroscuro, brilliant and rich with a cadence that seems empowered by its period colour – the literary equivalent to costume drama, but mediated by Nabokov or Joyce.

And yet there is something curious about the level of cruelty in this story. Of course it was a cruel period. The great Victorian Whig historian SR Gardiner, who had a deep sympathy for the Protestant and Puritan strain in English history, called Henry’s arbitrary execution of the Charterhouse monks one of the greatest crimes in British history. But Mantel really lays it on. The details of the disembowellings, the melted fat after the burnings: never was a book truer to the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s adage that the history of civilisation is always at the same time the history of barbarism.

Al Alvarez said once, unfairly I think, that the fascination with violence in Christopher Logue’s meta-versions of Homer was “fascist”. Fascism, alas, has no monopoly on cruelty or even sadism, however symbolically neat it may seem to think so. Wolf Hall exhibits a fascinated hatred for the barbarous punishments of the sixteenth century, but it is also barracking against Thomas More and his Catholic cause. Part of the burden of Mantel’s vision is to indict the essential cruelty of More.

More is represented, for all his fineness, as fundamentally cruel. Cromwell simply lets justice take its course, for the sake of expediency; behind the tough-guy exterior, he is even somewhat tender-minded. This generates a tremendous formal tension in the scene of More’s cross-examination. Somewhere along the line, though, it begins to feel as if history is being put on the rack in Wolf Hall. While Cromwell is a kind of antihero, he is such a phlegmatic and genial one – his temperament never descends to the levels of the actions he is forced to take – that, in the end, he is almost a good guy.

Much of what’s most impressive in Wolf Hall is the brilliant set pieces in which characters have the room to talk and glow. I could have done with less of the blood and guts and eviscerating ghastliness. But there is some superb writing here and a spirited attempt to spit in the face of history and all its horrors. The upshot, whatever its flaws, is enthralling.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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