The sign of a *really* good book at my place is insects squashed between the pages, and other pages stained with food and drink spills, all because I couldn’t bear to stop reading. This is what Wolf Hall was like for me – a story of the broadest magnitude, grabbing a well-known tale and remaking it, using imagery of the highest order without wafting off into the incomprehensible realms of “lyricism”. On the face of it, it’s the story of how Thomas Cromwell rose from a position of obscurity as a brawling blacksmith’s son to become Henry VIII’s highest advisor, and how he manipulated Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the changes to the church in England. We see him as a bereft husband, a teasing mentor, a deft diplomat, a thoughtful future planner, as a fumbling father, and in many more guises. It is a rich portrait – Mantel is as skilled as any of Cromwell’s law colleagues at persuading readers to look at the man in a certain way, in the best “show, don’t tell” tradition.
After a cardinal delicately lays out his family tree and connections, Cromwell thinks “If you were born in Putney, you saw the river every day, and imagined it widening out to the sea. Even if you have never seen the ocean you had a picture of it in your head from what you had been told by foreign people who sometimes came upriver. You knew that one day you would go out into a world of marble pavements and peacocks…but if you were born in Aslockton, in flat fields under a wide sky, you might just be able to imagine Cambridge, no further”. Over and over, we are reminded of Cromwell’s humble beginnings, the power inherent in him – his son Gregory is surprised that Cromwell doesn’t realise people see him as a murderer – but also his desire to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Cromwell’s philanthropy and his passion for knowledge is one of the many interesting threads in the story. Often he asks about Guido Camillo, a man who is creating a “memory system” – a man who has “built a soul…They are what we shall have left, if all the books are burned. They will enable us to remember not only the past, but the future, and to see all the forms and customs that will one day inhabit the earth”. Entwined with this is the fear of Lutheranism and the persecution of those publishing the Bible in English, the vicious racking, burning and torture ordered by the puritanical Thomas More – “He can close the booksellers, but still there will be books. They have their old bones, their glass saints in windows, their candles and shrines, but God has given us the printing press” one woman excitedly tells Cromwell. Later, he himself tells his nephew “You can’t tell people just part of the tale and then stop, or just tell them the parts you choose. They have seen their religion painted on the walls of churches, or carved in stone, but now God’s pen is poised, and he is ready to write his words in the book of their heart”.
The ancient heritage underlying Henry’s kingship, the primitivism at the heart of us all, is also strongly enmeshed in the story. Echoing the story’s title, during an earthy conversation with his cook Cromwell recalls the saying “homo homini lupus” – man is wolf to man. Mantel seems to be asking what gives us our power, evoking images of Albion, Caesar’s legions, star signs and astrological systems, Halloween and the purgatory of souls, even Emperor Constantine digging “through a necropolis, through 12 centuries of fishbone and ash, his workmen’s shovels powdering the skulls of saints”. Alongside this, Cromwell muses that Christ didn’t induce power in his followers, so how does the Pope get his power? And then on to legislative power, through which a King reigns. It is a book that gives food for thought as well as entertainment.
One of my very favourite passages shows Anne Boleyn as a deer caught in the woods – “Walking away – eight antechambers back to the rest of his day – he knows that Anne has stepped forward to a place where he can see her, the morning light lying along the curve of her throat”. The veneer of civility, the antechambers to be passed and the stripping away of it to reveal one’s true nature, is what the book was all about for me. It was never far from mind that the head of Wolf Hall, Edward Seymour had taken his son’s wife to his bed. How Thomas Cromwell makes use of all this made for enthralling reading. I hope the sequel isn’t too far away.