Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Who Let the Dogs Out? At Long Last, My Review of WOLF HALL

WINTER, 1533: an eerie noise pierces the London night. “Is there loups in this kingdom,” a young French émigré asks his new mentor and surrogate father Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell replies, “I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners.”

They may not have thick gray coats and fangs, but Hilary Mantel’s London is full of wolves, of the human and equally carnivorous kind: from clergymen to courtiers, to concubines, to the king himself, Henry VIII. Hence the title WOLF HALL, though it means something else as well, something quite literal. Wolf Hall is also the name of the Seymour family’s estate—a den of carnivores with a father that eats his young, so to speak. The patriarch Sir John Seymour, father of Jane, her sister Lizzie, and her soon-to-be famous brothers Edward and Thomas, stole Edward’s wife Catherine Filliol and had children by her. The relationship was considered incestuous, Edward repudiated Catherine and had their marriage annulled. Her children were declared bastards and Catherine was banished to a convent. The reader can infer from this little domestic scandal the parallels to Henry VIII’s incestuous relationships with his first two wives: Henry slept with Mary Boleyn prior to wedding her younger sister; and Katharine f Aragon was first been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur. Whether or not their union was considered incestuous leads to the trial of the sixteenth century.

Winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction, WOLF HALL begins in the late 1520s (with several pages of flashback to Cromwell’s impoverished and violent childhood in Putney) and ends in the summer of 1535. England at the time was edging toward a future no one could fully imagine. For Henry, eager to rid himself of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, in order to wed the striving, ambitious, manipulative commoner Anne Boleyn, history was moving at a glacial pace; while for his former Chancellor, the crackerjack lawyer and theologian Sir Thomas More, the velocity was dizzying and needed to be halted.

After countless novels featuring at their epicenters Anne Boleyn and other women of the Tudor Court, WOLF HALL offers an original and refreshing take on the era. As we dog the footsteps and enter the private thoughts of the narrator, Thomas Cromwell, we visit the places where wives and mistresses, and even Anne Boleyn—the usual suspects at the center of Tudor era historical fiction—are personae non grata. As I mentioned in my preliminary review of the novel, we are taken behind the arrases, into the corridors of power and into the minds of the men who set the rules and who, with impunity, seek to change them. Some are true believers and others are masters of expedience, their eyes on the highest rung of the ladder and their consciences fluid and malleable, as circumstances dictate. Memories are long and revenge is a game for the patient.

Self-made commoner Thomas Cromwell is the sort of stout, pugnacious man with a dubious past who is so good at his job that his social betters overlook his humble origins even as they mock them. He is a true mercenary; a brawler from the slop-strewn streets of Putney who had to learn to give as good as he got from his perennially drunken father Walter, a brewer and blacksmith. At his age “I used to stick knives in people,” he thinks when he looks at his sweet-tempered son Gregory. After a particularly brutal beating, Cromwell ran away as far as his legs and a ship could take him, eventually becoming a mercenary soldier for the French army, and then a banker in Florence. He is as familiar with counting houses as he is with kitchens, man who can judge the weight of a yard of cloth by running it between his thumb and forefinger as well as he knows the proper weight of a given coin.

He is a survivor by dint of his wits, his tenacity, and his cunning, built like a bear-baiting mastiff, with a temperament to match. And he happens to be in the right place at the right time to rise to dizzying, and unprecedented, heights. The strong-arming consigliere in Henry VIII’s cosa nostra of courtiers, Cromwell advances rung by slippery rung, until he is made Lord Chancellor—the office once held by Thomas More as well as Cromwell’s mentor, Thomas Wolsey, the late cardinal. And he has a strained relationship with Thomas Boleyn, the father of the would-be queen. Yes, as Mantel has Cromwell quip to himself, call out the name Thomas and every man in the room will turn his head.

Mantel’s Cromwell is shrewd, manipulative, pragmatic. He lends money at interest—anathema to Christian practices. He doesn’t care if people don’t like him. He will point-blank demand a promotion, except in the king’s presence where he learned, at Wolsey’s hem how to play the self-effacing toady when the situation demands it. Cromwell’s aim is to be the secular Wolsey, smoothing the path of access to the king (for fees and considerations of course), the way his mentor (as well as the corrupt priests he decries) sell the gullible access to God.

The only sure thing in this era is death. Cromwell takes into his home, Austin Friars, his late sisters’ children, distant relations, and the equivalent of at-risk youths. He not only feeds and clothes them, but he gives them a purpose, a hand-up, and the chance at upward mobility that no one ever gave him. They will become loyal to a fault. The girls will make good marriages. Yet even as a doting father figure, rarely does Cromwell’s vulnerability surface; rather, he endeavors to suppress it at every turn. One of the rare times we are privy to the man behind the mask is in his relationship with his wife Liz—and even so, he will betray her memory, embarking on a new liaison in much the same way that the king, Henry VIII did after he cast aside Mary Boleyn. The parallel is not lost on the reader.

Cromwell's god is expedience. Only Thomas Cromwell the family man is likeable. Thomas Cromwell the public servant works very hard to appear invulnerable. “He doesn’t mean to give away pieces of himself,” Mantel tells us. “Arrange your faces,” he advises his minions as they prepare to do political battle.

In my preliminary review I mentioned Mantel’s inventive characterizations, notably her version of Thomas More as more sanctimonious than saint. And yet his final confrontations with Cromwell will tug at the reader’s heart, engaging the emotions in ways that the rest of the novel, though we appreciate Mantel’s craft and storytelling skills, do not. For More is the other side of the coin that is Cromwell; and Cromwell knows he has no worthier adversary. When he pleads, more than once, for More to swear to Henry’s new Act of Supremacy, it is Cromwell, and not More, who sounds desperate to preserve a life. Mantel’s characterizations are all the more plausible for their complexity and contradictions. As I mentioned in my preliminary review, Mantel’s Thomas More is brutal and violent and no contemporary reader can excuse certain aspects of his behavior. And yet, in the last fifth of the novel, during a tense scene between the two Thomases, Cromwell and More—More’s unshakeable belief and his devotion to his conscience are laudable, since most of the characters in this novel are so lacking in scruples.

In that standoff between More and Cromwell, pushed to the limit of his patience the latter explodes: “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” he says. “A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church had liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don’t try to make this simple. You know I have respected you? You know I have respected you since I was a child? I would rather see my only son dead, I would rather see them cut off his head, than see you refuse this oath, and give comfort to every enemy of England.”

The writing is masterful. If that had been a dramatic monologue, it would have stopped the show for applause.

Nevertheless, the reader cannot help but side with Cromwell when it comes to the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church at the time—and yet it is Cromwell whose motives are impure. His gods are Money and Power—not so different, in fact, from those princes of the church. Yet Cromwell makes the overwhelmingly cogent point that in the Bible Jesus never singled out one of his disciples and told him he would be the Pope as would his descendants, nor did Jesus give any of his followers permission to make laws, collect rents, decide who was born legitimate or a bastard ... it’s really quite wonderful how Mantel can make such an unpleasant man appear on the side of the angels—or not, as the literal case stands. Reading about the struggle to reform a corrupt institution—in this case the Catholic Church—reminds one of the battle over healthcare reform that is currently raging on Capitol Hill. Everyone agrees that the system is corrupt, and that a few are becoming enriched by it while many are made to pay through the nose for something that should by right be theirs. And yet the ones resisting reform are those whose purses are the fattest thanks to the old system, while those who would most benefit from reform are reluctant or skeptical about it—scared of changing the status quo for fear it might physically imperil them.

Historically Cromwell could not have cared less about that aspect of reforming a corrupt religion. He aimed to dissolve the monasteries and channel their wealth into the royal treasury thereby enabling Henry VIII to fund his wars, building projects, etc. And Mantel dramatizes that event gorgeously in the novel. Cromwell places the idea into Henry’s head in such a subtle way that Henry thinks it's his own idea.

Mantel’s Henry VIII is what you expect him to be. Ditto for Wolsey. They are men of large appetites, accustomed to getting what they want when they want it. The only major figure in the novel that did not work as well for me was Anne Boleyn. The novelist gives us the shrewd shrew that many authors before her have written. But lacking that crucial scene or two where she truly dazzles with her exotic beauty and sublime grace (because we always see her concentrated intent to manipulate her audience); and without a scene where we see the workings of her much vaunted intellect, we don’t have a woman that Henry will wait seven years for, let alone overturn the Christian religion to wed and bed.
Outside of the king’s presence, courtiers salivate over her as well, long before she becomes queen; yet the reader never sees what they must see in her; in fact, she clearly disdains the men in their very presence, so how could they be so blind? We hear of her quarrels with Henry, her sharp tongue, her fierce temper. We see how she treats other women, especially her sister Mary, with malice and cruelty. Where is the Anne the king fell in love with? Even Cromwell, that hard nut, eventually becomes smitten by her physical charms; (he fantasizes sexually about both Boleyn sisters).

Mary Boleyn, on the other hand, becomes very likeable, though Mantel makes skilled use of historical rumors that have been bandied about over the centuries surrounding the other, older Boleyn girl’s relationship with the king. Operating on the premise that if Anne is holding out for marriage, it’s better for Henry’s sexual urges to be satisfied by someone within the family, Mary remains Henry’s unwilling plaything long after her marriage to William Carey and into her widowhood. Here, the king is believed to be the father of her son, also named Henry. And even after he has wedded and bedded Anne, Henry is slaking his lust with her older sister, if not their cousin Madge Shelton as well. Mantel’s libidinous Mary is almost as canny as Anne in that both young women are aware of the power of their own allure. Each wields sex as a weapon as skillfully as Cromwell handles a knife, knowing just when to give that fatal twist, or estoc.

Mantel also makes literary hay from a centuries-old rumor that when Henry was a youth, he slept with the mother of the Boleyn girls, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn. It strains credulity, but that’s why they call it historical fiction. The author also consistently refers to Wolsey as the son of an Ipswich butcher, because that’s what history has handed down to us; Wolsey’s father was in fact a grazier. But slaughtering cattle is such a squalid profession compared to herding them, that regurgitating that sort of teensy factual error is entirely forgivable; besides, it’s fiction, and her characters get plenty of mileage out of disdaining the butcher's son.

Mantel stealthily introduces us to seemingly minor characters who, the well-versed Tudor geek immediately recognizes, will play a much larger role in the future. In fact the entire novel is about the future—of England, and of the Church, and of Mantel’s vast cast of characters. Wolf Hall is the home of Henry's future wife--and not the one he spends the better part of the novel trying to marry.
The first time we see a homely, diffident blond scuttling from Anne Boleyn’s rooms, the intuitive reader knows already who she is and what role she will eventually play. The fun part is getting there; in Mantel’s novel, while Henry doesn’t look twice at Jane Seymour, the widowed Cromwell does, disappointed when he learns she will return to her father’s estate in the country. And a young lutenist initially in Wolsey’s employ, with a penchant for gazing goggle-eyed at Anne and gawking at the nobility, as well as for listening at keyholes, is of course Mark Smeaton.

Mark, along with the Francises—Bryan and Weston; Henry Norris, and William Brereton, Henry’s smug quartet of courtiers (whom we first see playing devils in a masque depicting the fall of Cardinal Wolsey), will lose their heads on Tower Hill within a year after we turn the final page, victims of a trumped up charge of treason for bedding Anne Boleyn. So too will Anne’s brother George, Viscount Rochford, a cold, power-hungry popinjay who hates his wife and spends an inordinate time getting the silk lining beneath his slashed sleeves to puff perfectly.

Part of the deliciousness of the novel is in knowing that some of the most arrogant characters are headed for a fall, including the novel’s protagonist, who will part company with his own head on July 28, 1540—Henry’s wedding day to wife number five, Kathryn Howard—for brokering the king’s disastrous marriage with Anne of Cleves, and for becoming too big for his breeches. There but for the grace of Henry go any of them.

Other characters, including those Cromwell has little use for, such as Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester; and particularly the politician Thomas Wriothesley, whom he refers to as “Call-Me-Risley”—or just “Call-Me”--will not only outlive Cromwell, but “Call-Me” will one day have his job as Lord Chancellor.

Although WOLF HALL falls squarely into the category of historical fiction, the voice-y third-person present tense owes more of a debt to literary fiction. Tenses change within the same paragraph. Words are laid out like playing cards, sometimes deliberately forming grammatically incomplete sentences of the kind that tend to send historical fiction copyeditors into a self-righteous tizzy. Dialogue is not always set within quotation marks, often blending with a character’s inner thoughts.

The novel ends with plans for a royal progress, almost a play on words for what will come next. It is summer, 1535. Sir Thomas More has just martyred himself on Tower Hill. Anne Boleyn’s thousand days are already numbered, although she has yet to realize it. In damp and drafty Kimbolton Katherine of Aragon has a little more than half a year to live. Come September, Henry and his courtiers will visit Wolf Hall, the seat of the Seymour family. If you know your Tudor history, that visit is when Henry’s serious infatuation with Jane Seymour truly began, no doubt disappointing Mantel’s Cromwell, who is tempted at various points in the novel to stake his own claim for her. We can’t help but laugh at his misguided view that she is so plain and unprepossessing that no one else would ever want her anyway. But in her final sentence Mantel leaves us with a hopeful Chancellor; the man who has finally made peace with his wife’s passing and is ready to make his move on the unattractive little blond who has haunted his thoughts for years. Little can anyone know that the biggest wolf in the halls of England will snatch up the little rabbit.


Christine Trent said...

Wow, this is a plethora of "supporting cast" characters that are going to be fascinating to read about in their own right. Especially those crazy little Seymours. I suspect that many of the people you mention in your review have been given short shrift in other novels, but get lots of attention here.

Sounds like Mantel has a hit on her hands. Do you know if the sheis planning a sequel book?

Thanks for this very detailed review. I'm drooling for this book. I just ordered a copy and can't wait to get it.

Leslie Carroll said...

Christine, thanks for your comment! I don't know if Mantel is planning a sequel. There's so much to write about, of course. I have to confess that I am not familiar with her earlier novels so I don't know whether WOLF HALL is part and parcel of what she tends to do, or whether it represents a departure.

There's a poignant scene with Cromwell and Jane Seymour in Mary Boleyn's rooms after Mary has married William Stafford, a nobody with no money, and in a fury Anne has had her kicked out of court. Mary is given scant time to pack her belongings and skedaddle and at one point she dashes out of the room, remembering that her cousin, Madge Shelton has a book of poetry that belongs to her.

While Mary is out of the room, tiny Jane Seymour, who at that point is one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting is straining to pull down the bed hangings. Cromwell says something like "I thought you didn't like her. Why are you helping her?"

And Jane Seymour replies simply, without affectation, "Because no one else will."

In that one line, you see why Henry would want to marry her.

Unfortunately we don't see why he is so desperate to marry Anne.

Mary Blayney said...

What a wonderful review, Leslie. I really dislike this period for all the reasons you mentioned -- so few people with so little honor -- motivated largely by self-interest.

I read to escape from a world that seems to much like that time so I doubt I will pick up Wolf Hall. But the detail with which you discuss the story makes me realize that I will be missing something.

lizzy J said...

Wow is right, what a great review. I loved the details, and the closing sentence was a great analogy.

Marie Burton said...

Wow! A very long.. Detailed! review.. You would think you were a writer or something ;)
Now that I know everything that it's about, I still want to read it. Buti certainly couldn't top this review!!

Ms. Lucy said...

Leslie, that is one fantastic review..and then some! I believe you've touched upon every point I'd like to know the author covered. It sounds fabulous. This time around though, I'll be left satisfied by your review alone, since I've had my fill of Tudors to last me awhile- and don't think I'm ready (or willing) right now to handle another meaty read based on this monarchy;)Your awesome review is quite reflective of the excellent writing skills you possess. Thanks!

Leslie Carroll said...

Ms. Lucy: WOLF HALL is a dense and sophisticated -- and thoroughly enjoyable -- read. But all of us, myself included, have many things on our plates right now, or plates spinning in the air. Don't beat yourself up over declining to read the novel for review purposes.

It is, however, a worthy "pleasure read" when one has the time. Perhaps curling up in front of a fireplace with a brand during the long Canadian winter? :)

Leslie Carroll said...

Mary: I understand your reservations, considering I did express that so many of the WOLF HALL characters (which are thoroughly grounded in impeccable historical research) are indeed unlikeable human beings.

However, if you'd like a sophisticated read with fascinating storytelling, I would encourage you to invest the time it takes to read it. Think of it this way: at least you wouldn't be rushing to review it by the book's release date, so you can take your time!

Lizzy: I worked hard for that final analogy! :) There was so much to say about this book and the more I think about the novel, the more ideas I come up with, thinking, "gee, I should have mentioned such-and-such." And I wasn't interested in avoiding "spoilers" in my review. If a reader doesn't know that all of those characters are now dead, "Houston, we have a problem."

Marie: yes, it is kind of a long review, but there is so much literary meat on the bone in WOLF HALL that it might have been harder to say less than to say more. Enjoy it -- and I'd love to read your review; it's not a "competition." :) People can look at the same thing in so many different ways, I'm sure you'll find numerous things to say about it -- in your own words, even!

Allie ~ Hist-Fic Chick said...

Do you think me odd for saying that I'm not going to read this review until I've posted mine? I think it's like you (and other authors I've spoken to) have said many times, that you prefer not to read another writer's work within the same category of your own because it might lead to unintentional phrase/idea lifting. There is clearly a lot to say about this book, and I don't want to chance the possibility of my "stealing" your thoughts when it comes time for me to post my own review! I did, however, read your "preview review," which was great and very well-worded. Anyway, I will definitely come back to this after I've read the book myself and written my own, Hist-Fic Chick-styled review!

Leslie Carroll said...

Allie, I don't think you're "odd" at all for waiting to read my review after you've posted your own; and the reasons you specified are indeed, always a factor.

Anyway I know you've got a great brain and I'm sure you'll have plenty of things to say about the book that have sprung from your own analytical mind. :)

Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the fabulous review, Leslie! You give a wonderful sense of the texture of the book. Mantel is a fabulous writer. I'm currently reading her "A Place of Great Safety" about Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins, which is quite riveting, and I look forward to "Wolf Hall."

My freshman year in college I played a small in "A Man for All Seasons," and one of my closest friends played Cromwell (he actually met at auditions). There was a scene where he interviewed me during the trial (my character as a witness against More). My friend likes to say, tongue in cheek, that the play is really all about Cromwell, and More is just the antagonist :-).

Leslie Carroll said...

Thanks for the compliment on the review, Tracy. I was getting worried that it was becoming as lengthy as the book itself, but there's so much to say about it!

I like your friend's assessment of "A Man For All Seasons." Whenever I played a supporting role in something I always would refer, also tongue in cheek, to the title of the play as "[my character] and her friends."

WOLF HALL has piqued my interest in reading more about More, so to speak. I would love to know whether much of Mantel's characterization of him is based on historical evidence.

Tracy Grant said...

Well, everyone is the center of their own life, so of course from a supporting character's pov the play is all about them :-).

Have you seen the Henry VIII series from the 70s with Keith Michell? That's where I first encountered Cromwell. Your account of Mantel's characterization tallies pretty well with that and the other things I've read about him. I think in "A Man for All Seasons" he comes off as a bit too much of a villain, just as More comes off as a bit too much of a hero.

Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, I think Keith Michell's miniseries is sort of the definitive Henry VIII series, though the Kathryn Howard is horridly miscast. I can't even rememeber who plays her, but it's all wrong. He, however, is wonderful in the role, especially his physicality and the way he ages during the series.

The Anne of Cleves (I can't recall who played her, either) was very well done. It gave me new respect for, and interest in, Anne, who tends to be one of the more forgotten wives.

"A Man For All Seasons" is all about venerating More. It's not intended to present a balanced portrayal of the man. If I had more time right now I'd look up the year it came out and check to see what was going on in the world at the time, to get an idea of the metaphor the filmmakers were going for, because all political period films like that are products of their own time as much as they place the spotlight on another era.

Tracy Grant said...

The play version of "A Man for All Seasons" is 1960 (though there was a radio version in 1954) and the movie 1966. Totally agree that Robert Bolt (the playwright) wasn't trying to recreate a balanced portrait of More. I think he was admittedly using the story to talk about individual conscience in the face of tyranny.