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Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt and Co., 2009
560 pp., $35.00

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Alan Jacobs


Past Present

What is historical fiction?

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More directly in our view is the world of Henry's court, and this, at first, Cromwell knows little about. We learn its perversities and stratagems just as he does. As he rises in knowledge, power, and influence, we move with him. The dominant figures of the age—Henry himself, Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary, Thomas More, the radical Protestants (as we would now call them) associated with William Tyndale and his Bible—we see as Cromwell does. And seeing as Cromwell does is, I think, the whole point of the book. Not for Mantel the intricate reconstructions of the material world of Tudor England—which may be just as well, since such reconstructions can be narratively problematic: Byatt's The Children's Book is so heavily bedecked with erudition about everything late-Victorian, from clothing styles to the condition of museums to the popular cult of the supernatural, that the book's actual story is often obscured. Mantel's interest in history is more psychological: though, for instance, we may well have Wolsey's elaborate personal drapery described to us, or Mary Boleyn's green stockings, or the carpets in Thomas More's house in Chelsea—because Cromwell sees and notes such things—we move quickly from them to more intimate relations between persons: their words, their silences, their gestures of hand or eye. If I were forced to describe Wolf Hall as a historical novel or a psychological one, I would have to choose the latter.

This psychological focus is especially important because Mantel clearly thinks of Cromwell as the most modern person in her story—the one most like Us. In her vision he is an utterly non-ideological man with little intrinsic interest in power forced to live in a profoundly ideological and power-mad age. His strongest feelings are for his wife and children—he loses that wife and both of his daughters to the "sweating sickness" (we would call it malaria)—and when a colleague finds him weeping over his dead loved ones, Cromwell pretends that he cries for fear that he will fall when the Cardinal does. The lie is more than plausible: no one in Henry's court could think of a more likely reason for tears. Cromwell is even tender towards animals, in an age noted for its cruelty to them.The conventional narratives of the Tudor age contrast Thomas More's reluctant ascent to power, and stubborn loyalty to the Church even in the face of death, with Cromwell's unprincipled Machiavellian shrewdness. Mantel doesn't quite invert the equation, but she nearly does. Confined as we are to Cromwell's perspective, we can't know what really motivates More, but Cromwell certainly doubts that the piety goes all the way down: at one point he even asks More directly whether he could have risen to the place of Lord Chancellor "by accident." Cromwell, meanwhile, commends himself to others not through readiness to sell his services but through his very loyalty to Wolsey: when everyone knows that Wolsey is doomed, and that any shrewd man would flee so as not to get caught up in the Cardinal's destruction, Cromwell pursues every possible means to restore Wolsey to the King's favor. The Boleyns, the Duke of Norfolk, even the King himself: Cromwell approaches them all, seeks their support for the Cardinal, and in the process discovers that they want him to serve them as well. He has been Wolsey's fixer—why shouldn't he be theirs? After all, when Wolsey does fall, Cromwell will need a job.

It is in this way, as Mantel tells the tale, that Cromwell rises—supplanting More, who had supplanted Wolsey—to be the first servant of King Henry: not from love of power, nor from absolute commitment to a Cause, but from simple yet absolute competence. He gets things done. And perhaps he gets them done because power and ideology are secondary to him: you can think more clearly about what doesn't touch your heart of hearts. In his deepest being, Mantel's Cromwell is the man who procures peacock feathers so that his little daughter (who would soon die) can be the most beautiful angel in the Christmas play. "But Grace stood glittering, her hair entwined with silver threads; her shoulders were trussed with a spreading, shivering glory, and the rustling air was perfumed as she breathed. Lizzie said, Thomas, there's no end to you, is there? She has the best wings the city has ever seen."

Much of the material culture of the past can be known. When Cromwell describes for the women of his household the clothing of Anne Boleyn—the fabric of her gown, the cut of her headdress—we believe that indeed it was so. If Mantel did not get these details right, she could have and should have. But people's inner lives are always constructed in our imaginations, and this is true whether they are our contemporaries or figures from the distant past. The story of the courtier who finds Cromwell weeping, and to whom Cromwell expresses his fear that he will fall with Wolsey, was not invented by Mantel: it's part of the historical record. Mantel's contribution is the notion that Cromwell lied about his tears and was really thinking of his beloved dead. And this could have been the case; we cannot know. But that's not because Cromwell lived half a millennium ago. When Lord Chancellor More adds to the charges against Wolsey one that Cromwell knows to have been fabricated, Cromwell tries to imagine what went through More's mind when he made that claim—but he cannot do it; More lies always beyond the reach of his imagination, even though the two men are in frequent contact.

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