Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker, and you might argue that it should have been ineligible for consideration simply from the fact that the world didn’t need another Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn saga. However, Hilary Mantel proves that, yes, we did indeed need this one. So much so that I’m going to follow the story through her trilogy on this overexamined period of English history.
Wolf Hall’s story is not so much about the traditional matters of pope vs. kings and beheading of wives as it is about the lives of people who live in and around monumental historic events. How they cope and survive, try to avoid the currents and flotsam and jetsam that the river of history hurls their way.
The central figure is Thomas Cromwell (only a distant ancestor of the Puritan dictator Oliver), a commoner street urchin who rises to become chief royal counselor. Mantel uses his wretched beginnings both for effective storytelling and for windows into the effects of royal doings on people on all levels of society. The novel begins with a nasty scene the prefigures nothing of the royal court where he will someday live:
Blood from the gash on his head. . .is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but. . .with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has spring clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened up another cut. “So now get up!” Walter [his father] is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next.
Note Mantel’s insistence on detail–the right detail–for each dramatic moment and that she’s using the present tense,which she does all the way through. That technique is supposedly a no-no by some literary authorities, but, hey if it gets you a Booker, the voices of the brahmins must fall silent. We follow young Cromwell’s ascent with leaps and gaps in the timeline–for Hilary has not given us, thank her, an historic blow-by-blow–but a careful look at illustrative events and sequences. Now he ‘s a soldier. Then an aid to the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey, then advisor to the court, etc. Swirling around him all the while are the winds of religious change–Tyndale’s bible, renegade priests, false-and-true prophets, false-and-true traitors. Exactly what Cromwell believes or does not is unclear. He is his own man, steering his boat for his own advantage, never quite sinking. He helps others. He helps himself. He is an honest counselor to Henry, but never honest enough to put himself at risk of the ax. A tricky business in an environment where papists conspire against protestants, where a de-legitimated queen (Catherine) with fervent followers and an ambitious young daughter (Mary) who considers herself rightful heir to the throne wait for their opportunity to strike back, where a commoner-lover queen with a reputation as a fierce bitch tries to hold her position long enough to produce a male but succeeds only in pushing forth a bawling Elizabeth, where all the normal savagery of court politics moves apace and alliances shift moment-to-moment.
It’s a confusing world, but Hilary manages to keep us mostly straight. There are moments when I got lost among the pronouns and had to retrace to figure out who was saying or doing what to whom. And although it’s not absolutely necessary to know something about 16th Century English history to enjoy Wolf Hall, it doesn’t hurt, either. But eventually we get the picture of a gifted and essentially decent man doing what he considers best for his country and his church. And there are hundreds of wonderful moments of pure narrative genius such as the following, which might stand for all the moments of joy a reader will experience reading Wolf Hall. For months, Henry has been pursuing Anne’s virginity. For months, she has been holding him off till she can be sure it’s to her advantage to yield. All around, people wonder when/if it will happen, wonder how they will tell whether it has And this is how Hilary chooses to tell us and them:
As he leaves the church, Henry puts on his hat. It is a big hat, a new hat. And in that hat there is a feather.