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The ‘Wolf Hall’ Series Is A Landmark In Twenty-First Century Historical Fiction


When Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall came out in late 2009, it was marketed as a literary-historical romance novel, not unlike The Other Boleyn Girl and such. I picked it up because it had a male main character and the jacket copy made it look like there might be some grand politics and killing in the midst of the sighs and social maneuvers.

By the end, I knew I’d come upon a minor classic, maybe the first of the new century. Since then the book and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, has amassed awards and, more importantly, sales. There’s been a decent BBC mini-series. Now The Mirror and the Light, the third and final book in the trilogy, is out.

The Wolf Hall series is a deep dive into the consciousness of Thomas Cromwell, who was chief adviser to King Henry VIII. For several years, he basically ran Britain, kept it out of wars, and oversaw its transition to a Protestant country, including the confiscation of the monasteries, which was accomplished in an amazingly fiscally responsible manner under Cromwell. He also solidified the marriage of king and parliament in effective governance, and kept Henry out of a couple of disastrous wars he might otherwise have gotten into and lost.

Thomas Cromwell is a historical person, familiar to Brits. I’d never heard of him, or if I had, I’d forgotten. I read Wolf Hall wondering if Mantel had made him up. Her Cromwell was too powerfully wrought and sympathetic—and too modern in sensibility—to believe she’d plucked such a fellow out of history. But pluck she did, and she chose well.

The Mind of Cromwell

Cromwell used Henry VIII’s desire to be rid of Catherine of Aragon and sire a boy-child as a means to separate Britain from rotting Continental Christendom, create the Anglican faith, and slough off the last vestiges of the Middle Ages.

Catherine had given birth to Mary (not the Queen of Scots one) and gone through menopause otherwise childless. Inconveniently, she did not die. Henry charged his chaplain and main advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, with figuring how to get the marriage annulled by the pope. Wolsey wasn’t successful, and he was deposed.

But Wolsey’s chief legal lieutenant, Cromwell, saw a way—or rather, he saw something he wanted to accomplish and he used Henry’s desire as a tool to get it. The king was made head of the English church and, miraculously, the archbishop of Canterbury (a Cromwell crony) proclaimed Henry’s marriage to Catherine had never been a marriage at all.

Waiting impatiently in the wings was beautiful, manipulative Anne Boleyn. With Cromwell, master of parliamentary and legal maneuvering, clearing the path, Henry married her, bedded her, and got her pregnant. Alas, seven years later, Anne had birthed only “a convulsing mass of linen, red flailing fists, a maw emitting shrieks,” as Mantel puts it. This was the sniveling, redheaded Elizabeth.

Everyone knew that child wouldn’t amount to anything. Henry wanted Anne gone. Cromwell obliged. He conveniently discovered the queen involved in massive adultery and treason, and then he had a “queen of England to behead, and five of her lovers. A man does not do it every week.”

What happened to Cromwell after that? As if we don’t know. Anyway, that’s what we find out in The Mirror and the Light. It’s a long journey. The book is massive, at 784 pages in hardcover. Wolf Hall, by contrast, came in at 560 pages—which is certainly a doorstop, but not quite a potential murder weapon.

We’re always in Cromwell’s head, and everything reminds him of something, whether from his own past, some trait of the colorful cast of characters he’s surrounded with, or something he’s read or observed. It’s not known whether Cromwell really used the Method of Loci memory method, the storing of information in a “memory palace,” but Mantel paints him as an extreme practitioner.

He carries in his head the statutes of England, the psalms and the words of the Prophets, the columns of the king’s account books and the lineage, acreage and income of every person of substance in England. He is famous for his memory, and the king likes to test it, by asking him for details of obscure disputes from twenty years back. He sometimes carries a sprig of dried rosemary or rue, and crumbles it in his palm as if inhaling the scent would help him. But everyone knows it is only a performance. The only things he cannot remember are the things he never knew.

In like manner, reading Mantel’s novel is like moving along an interlaced spiderweb of a brilliant man’s thoughts. This is so hard to do for an author! So many writers attempt it and fail miserably, especially when they try to present historical figures. Mantel has imagined her Cromwell so completely and leads us along so expertly—like a ghostly tour guide through Cromwell’s own Memory Palace—that we can’t imagine a situation she couldn’t immerse us within, up to and including, maybe, Cromwell’s own death.

Eleven years after Wolf Hall, the series has been lauded with awards and honors. Few may recall that Wolf Hall was a dark horse choice for England’s Man Booker Prize in 2010. It was thought to be too much of a genre book, not metafictional or irony-laden in the slightest (bad things), and just too old-fashioned and novel-ly. Plus it was all about Thomas Cromwell, a monster who killed a feminist hero! (Even if Anne Boleyn was never a feminist anything in real life).

But the greatness of Wolf Hall couldn’t be denied that year. It won, and, incidentally, made the Man Booker itself relevant for the first time since Midnight’s Children won in 1981, eventually helping Salman Rushdie earn a fatwah.

The Mirror and the Light follows an a-temporal storyline, moving in and out of Cromwell’s later history at crucial moments both to himself and the nation. We’re seldom lost. It’s the emotional rather than chronological biography of a fascinating man. There are wonderful, quotable quips every few pages, and scenes of constrained, deep feelings—particularly feelings of jealousy, malice, and envy. Mantel does hatred so nicely that it almost makes the reader want to go conjure up a few bitter enemies so he can have this much fun despising them and working toward their downfall.

It’s a smelly book. There is a meticulous depiction of food and eating. If, like me, you found yourself snared by the cloying but impossible-to-stop-watching “Great British Baking Show,” you’ll like taking the meals here. We also get a nose full of the stench of London, and experience the disease-laden frailty of human flesh in both hilarious and tragic manner.

Things do get crumbly in the middle sections of the novel as Cromwell confronts what seems like an endless civil insurrection backed by the Papist aristocracy. Even an American knows that England didn’t revert to Catholicism, so who cares?

All the books in the series are written in present tense. It works for a while, infusing the story with breathless engagement in the moment. Sections of the books read like poems, impressionistic vignettes filled with heightened, perfectly honed language. These work when they also advance the story. But the technique becomes a liability when the tale gets so complex that we can’t step away from the reverie and clear up the confusion with a little past tense reflection and exposition.

A Wounded Soul

So Mantel’s massive trilogy is done, and a landmark for early twenty-first century lit is laid. Fiction depends on character, plot, and setting. History gave her the plot, but Mantel’s brilliance was choosing to portray the perfect man for an important moment—the moment the Renaissance became Modern Times, at least in England.

History inks the skin: it writes on the hide of sheep long slaughtered, or calves who never breathed; the dead cut away the ground beneath us, so that when he descends a stair at Austin Friars, the tread falls away under his foot, and below him there is another stair, no longer visible except in the mind’s eye; and down it goes, to the city where the legions of Rome left their ashes beneath the earth, their glass in the soil, their bones in the river.

Cromwell’s age is where our sensibilities emerged from the gilded trance of the Middle Ages. The beginnings of democracy. The tentative rejection of torture as a method for political coercion (but not, alas, beheading). The rise of the merchant middle class, and the slow decline of insufferably smug, pompous, and malodourous aristocrats. Most of all, the translation of God’s Word into the language of the people, particularly Tyndale’s Bible, which became the foundation for the King James edition.

The heart of the novel is emotional, however. It’s about sympathy. Cromwell is smart, and has a prodigious memory, but his real gift is the ability to project himself into another’s mind and imagine what it is like to be them, to feel for them when they, inevitably, go down dangerous or foolish paths, and try to help them even when they don’t want to help themselves. For a man who is a master manipulator but not in the least a psychopath, it requires he wound a little bit of his own soul every time he wounds the soul of another.

‘Do you think I am saved?’ he says. ‘I am covered in lamp black and my hands smell of coin, and when I see myself in a glass I see grime—I suppose that is the beginning of wisdom? About my fallen state, I have no choice but agree. I must meddle with matters that corrupt—it is my office.

Individual sympathy is a lesson that people of the present are quickly forgetting. We rush forward into tribal identity and maniacal group behavior. We destroy careers and lives in the service of the small gods of indignation and ideology. The very idea of seeing the world through the eyes of a patriarchal white guy—a white guy who can be viewed as one of history’s monsters, a man who chopped off the head of a sexually emancipated woman, no less, just because she couldn’t whelp male git—will seem anathema to many.

But here he is, says Mantel, and he’s a lot more like us than you may think. We know what happened now, but Cromwell didn’t know what was coming. Every moment was utterly tense, because there stood freaking Henry VIII, a flashing blade of a boss, who could fight for you, defend you, or cut you to ribbons and dance on your bloody ruins, at any given moment. Cromwell was twisting and turning in the present just as we are, trying to help those he loved, harm those who were out to get him, and generally figure out how to survive another day at work.

Somewhere—or Nowhere, perhaps—there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name.

And if you spend a while in the head of the Thomas Cromwell of Hilary Mantel, you may find yourself questioning whether you might have done the same things yourself. Probably not, but maybe so.

This is one of the things reading fiction is good for. We could all do with a little personal and chronological humility these days. After all, one day we, too, will be fodder for a historical novel. And, if it’s as good as Mantel’s masterpiece, even living through our benighted early twenty-first century may have been worth it.