February 28, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Writing about web page http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wolf-Hall-Hilary-Mantel/dp/0007230184/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267368311&sr=8-2

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I recently finished reading Wolf Hall, which as you probably know won the Booker last year. It's a wonderful historical novel, dealing with the key early events of the English Reformation. It's of interest to me as it is written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell; the lead character, of course, of the Chamberlain's Play Thomas Lord Cromwell attributed in 1599 to Shakespeare.

One of the most striking features of the play is that, unlike the vast majority of other Elizabethan/early Jacobean histories based on a single figure, it begins in the lead character's youth before his entry into public life. We see Cromwell's teenage years living at his blacksmith father's, and then his travels around Europe before his entry into English public life, ascension to the highest offices and ultimate execution. It's an unusually person-centred play, building up a character before his public "character" is formed in office.

Wolf Hall follows a similar pattern, though concluding with the execution of Thomas More (and, by association, the collapse of the Catholic church in England) rather than Cromwell's own fall. While it's obviously a more popular historical novel motif to view a period through one individual's eyes, it's interesting to read two versions of Cromwell's history written four hundred years apart. Seemingly, this would indicate a prevailing fascination with the character. Born in obscurity, yet rising to favour through a combination of hard work and political savvy, he also navigated successfully the dangerous path from favourite of Wolsey to favourite of the King when the former fell. That this man, whose humble birth of course occasioned a great deal of prejudice against him, was also responsible for spearheading the English Reformation and, effectively, making possible Henry's remarriage to Anne Boleyn, is even more extraordinary.

Mantel's book is fascinating in its depiction of the interior life of this man. His pragmatism and directness are tinged with a disposition to violence, his childhood abuse informing his instinctive response to conflict-resolution. He recognises the fear he occasions in others and manipulates that fear; and his prodigious memory skills, learned in Europe, allow Mantel to weave an internal narrative that sees the past constantly impinging on the present, particularly in the persons of his dead wife and children. The play, on the other hand, is light on soliloquy, and we are curiously distanced from Cromwell. While his past is an important part of the character, here it is rather in the external circumstances of his youth: childhood connections return throughout his adult life, and he maintains a rapport with the lower orders that separates him from his aristocratic peers. Similarly, in Mantel's version of Cromwell, he shows a predisposition to help and support the young and poor, his household growing exponentially as he finds positions for those without work. This connection to the people, both endearing him to the lower orders and making an enemy of the lords, is constant in both versions.

Alongside this is the presentation of Thomas More, dramatically different in both. More is a presence in the Elizabethan play, and in his brief appearances we are reminded of his wit, humanism and essential decency, though his fall is spoken of without pity. Similarly, in the play of Thomas More, More is a man of humour and integrity, with implicit criticism of the circumstances that led to his fall. It's quite remarkable, when you consider that More was executed for his Catholicism and his opposition to Henry's marriage with Anne Boleyn, that two Elizabethan plays on More present him in so positive a light. By contrast, his presentation in Wolf Hall is ruthless. More's role in the torture and execution of Protestants (seen of course from the eyes of Cromwell, who shares those Protestant beliefs; or, at least, finds them more politically useful) is a secondary horror to his treatment of his family, and his self-martyrdom is taken to a degree that even Cromwell finds pitiful. The two men, in the book's closing movement, are portrayed as surprisingly similar, only with opposing spiritual positions; their dedication and obstinacy form a kind of kinship between them. It's a kinship that I read in the two Elizabethan plays that build their picture of Henry VIII's reign around them; these are two essentially decent men whose rise inevitably leads to their catastrophic falls.

Mantel's book is well worth reading. It's thoroughly entertaining and creates a tremendous world populated by rich characters, and it's just a disappointment it ends when it does. As related to the apocrypha, it's an interesting lens through which to revisit the earlier works on Tudor history.

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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