Imagine with me for a moment a greatly leveling experience, aside from that which is our shared first and last. Find an airport for the departure of your reverie, any old major metropolitan will do. Hop a mind’s flight to London, from there jump the train up to Cambridge. Then mosey your way, in a crowd if you must (but better if you can go it alone or with just a few imaginary others), into the nave of the King’s College Chapel. Stand for a while under the fan vaulting and let the weight of 500 years wash over you. That should begin to do it. Are you feeling a smidgen of insignificance?
Now, take it just a bit further. Close your eyes, standing still where you are, or perhaps closer into the chancel with its woodwork and candles, and imagine that you are an English commoner of those 500 years past, someone with neither rank nor lineage to boost your way in this world. You work hard, have your family and your likes and dislikes. You have a trade that sustains your living and you’re doing well as can be expected. Keep those eyes closed tightly. Now, take a deep breath and let yourself feel the main event, a faintest brush of the largest, finest velvet sleeve imaginable, come up against your bare hand and, contained within that sleeve, the magnificence known as His Majesty, Henry VIII. Tell me you don’t feel a little shiver.
This feeble exercise in pretense can’t fully encompass the deep sense of inadequacy which I felt two weeks ago upon opening Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker shortlisted novel. Invited to such a romping, sprawling imaginative event as that which is the fictionalized life of Thomas Cromwell, what could I possibly bring to the party as a common reader? I almost gave up. One hundred pages in, I was nervously trying to sort the novel’s sundry references to the titled life when I hit upon this:
Try always, the cardinal says, to learn what people wear under their clothes, for it’s not just their skin. Turn the king inside out, and you will find his scaly ancestors: his warm, solid, serpentine flesh.
Mantel’s style thus unleashes the reader and leaves the wannabe Tudor historian behind. Wolf Hall is historical fiction at its finest and gives the reader permission to slip off whatever limitations might be carried into the opening pages. This is a novel in which to sink your teeth.
The story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power is ultimately one familiar to us all. It is the story of a friendship, born under unlikely circumstance and driven for varying reasons to unique consequence. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who leaves home at the age of fifteen to find his rough-and- tumble way, inhabits Mantel’s novel as a middle aged man who relishes the comforts and fellowship of family life, a man whose success as a brilliant lawyer affords him ample opportunity to share his wealth amongst his kindred and other common folk. He is also a man who wears his hard scrabble raising beneath his clothing, not unlike the hair shirt worn by the Catholic apologist Thomas More, Cromwell’s formidable adversary.
But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.
Incorporated into the life of this “person from Putney” is advancement, power, privilege, and friendship, all in the form of Henricus Rex. Henry strolls through the pages of Wolf Hall with his legendary larger than life appetites intact, while at the same time seeming thoughtful and somehow vulnerable. Cromwell eases into the court life by virtue of his intelligence and willingness to work for his King and country. The friendship is remarkably vivid in Mantel’s flawless dialogue, full of humor and a sense of realism.
He (Cromwell) looks up. ‘May I speak?’
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Henry cries. ‘I wish someone would.’
He is startled. Then he understands. Henry wants a conversation, on any topic. One that’s nothing to do with love, or hunting, or war…, there’s not much scope for it; unless you want to talk to a priest of some stripe…
‘If you ask me about the monks, I speak from experience, not prejudice…and May I suggest to Your Majesty that, if you wish to see a parade of the seven deadly sins, you do not organise a masque at court but call without notice at a monastery?…What I cannot stomach is hypocrisy, fraud, idleness – their worn-out relics, their threadbare worship, and their lack of invention…I believe they have suppressed the history they don’t like, and written one that is favourable to Rome.’
Henry appears to look straight through him, to the wall behind. He waits. Henry says, ‘Dogholes, then?’
Of course the intent which initially drives the friendship between Cromwell and Henry VIII is that of obtaining a divorce for Henry from his wife Katherine so that he can marry Anne Boleyn.
Time now to consider the compacts that hold the world together: the compact between ruler and ruled, and that between husband and wife. Both these arrangements rest on a sedulous devotion, the one to the interest of the other.
Henry and Cromwell are bound forever within the famous campaign to shape the future of their beloved island.
The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater: her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.
Wolf Hall is populated with many peripheral characters, some written fully, such as Anne Boleyn, and many others brilliantly focused and placed within the novel to give the life of Thomas Cromwell shape and meaning. Cromwell’s characterization is immensely satisfying and identifiable in its wide range. In Mantel’s vision, he is as much a “man for all seasons” as his contemporary More.
He, Cromwell, is no longer subject to vagaries of temperament, and he is almost never tired. Obstacles will be removed, tempers will be soothed, knots unknotted. Here at the close of the year 1533, his spirit is sturdy, his will strong, his front imperturbable. The courtiers see that he can shape events, mould them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world.