Unlike a lot of these books that just ‘fall into my lap’, Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies arrived in my arms through explicable circumstances. The Early Tudors was a big part of my AS History course last year, and I thought it would both be beneficial to keep up a sort of acquaintance with the period this year before I take my A-Level exams. And at the same time, I wanted to look at ways in which English and History were interlinked, as I started reading Wolf Hall at a time when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at university. Now, I am firmly committed to English, but it is interesting to look at this genre of fiction all the same. And I thought, clearly this Mantel lady is quite a good writer, because she’s managed to win the Booker Prize twice in a span of four years (for Wolf Hall in 2009, for Bring Up the Bodies in 2012). And it seems I was right. Alongside All The Light We Cannot See, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are two of my favourite books I’ve read this year.
So that’s my journey to Wolf Hall. But my journey to Wolf Hall, and beyond it, following the king’s minister Thomas Cromwell, was a bit less smooth. I’ve been reading these books since June, so it wasn’t exactly a fast read. That’s not because it’s boring or anything, but because unless one is extremely well-versed in their Tudor history, reading this novel requires a heck of a lot of jumping back and forth to family trees. You could argue that Mantel’s style exarcebates these problems; in a Guardian essay on her writing style from 2010, she informs, “first paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?” And indeed, we get the sense that Mantel has done a lot of editing to this aim. Personally, I like the style, though I think I’d be unable to imitate it myself, having been consumed by the fantasy genre’s addiction to relentless and often self-congratulatory descriptions of food and fires and stuff. At the same time, though, a chapter that opens with “So: Stephen Gardiner” is a bit jarring, especially to the uninitiated reader. In a way, though, I suppose this punchy writing style is the sort of thing that suits Cromwell, who, though a progressive reformist – and therefore, would be opposed to the unnecessarily romantic style that permeates the historical fiction of the past – isn’t a zealot obsessed with minimalism.
Mantel keeps a very close eye on Cromwell; her point-of-view is limited to the point where the pronoun “he”, at almost any point, can be assumed to refer to Cromwell. Again, it can be a little confusing, but when it works, it is very effective, an assurance that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are not simply novels treading the path of a thousand others. The novels are not about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the Dissolution, or even, really, Cromwell’s role in the legislative procedures of the Tudor court, but rather, the man himself: Thomas Cromwell, Cremuel, Tommaso, whatever you want to call him. Testament to this is the fact that, as a reader, I was never actually one-hundred-percent sure exactly what Cromwell does, but he’s always guaranteed to get results, learning all his best lessons from Wolsey’s failures. The contrast of Wolsey’s fall and his protégé’s rise is one of the most effective narrative choices Mantel made in Wolf Hall; it pits the two religious ideologies – progressivism and conservatism more than full-blown Protestantism and Catholicism – against one another, and assesses their respective failures and successes. But something which interested me more than the actual content of the novel is an idea that relates more broadly to historical fiction: the idea of the protagonist, and how their role co-exists alongside historical interpretations.
Obviously, with a novel so intently focused on one character, that vague and dreaded word “bias” is bound to come up. Well, all literature is biased to some extent; you’ll never find a completely impartial narrator. Mantel, at least, is subtle about her bias. She doesn’t promote Cromwell as the best thing since sliced bread; he is still quite an insidious character, and Cromwell, upon seeing the portrait painted of him by Hans Holbein in 1532, he remarks that he looks like “a murderer”. But more than that, Cromwell doesn’t refute this. The years he spent abroad in Italy and France are mentioned through the form of anecdotes, but the tale of ‘how Thomas Cromwell came to be’ is never really considered in depth.
One might argue that Mantel’s bias presents itself less as a sickly-sweet promotion of Cromwell and more as a criticism of Thomas More. Cromwell, then, is to some extent the lesser of two evils, and representative of a progressive form of Protestantism against a form of comfortable luxury propagated by More. It’s important not to forget that Cromwell, though certainly not a champion of the people, is still a man of the people. The differences are especially apparent in a dinner scene at More’s house, where More insists in having conversation in Latin in spite of, and implicitly because, his wife Alice cannot understand the language. Though this might not be so opprobrious in historical context, as Mary Volmer argues in the slugline of her 2016 essay, “historical fiction is never solely about the past”. To the modern reader, this is a striking example of More’s socially regressive behaviour, one which aligns us firmly in the Cromwell camp given the natural modern opposition to rigid gender roles. Of course, Mantel’s audience is not so one-dimensional to believe that an adherence to 1530s gender politics equates directly to modern sexism; we understand that More is ultimately making a stand for conservatively Christian values, which he sees as threatened by Cromwell within England and the likes of Tyndall and Martin Luther without. More’s vision, described in Utopia, is for a separation of the sexes in accordance with their defined roles; in church, “the two sexes are separated, the men go to the right hand, and the women to the left”. A reader might observe that women are sent to the sinistra (sinister) side of life, but that is not entirely relevant here: readers need only understand that More’s views are not exactly revolutionary. But instead of heaping praise on the saint for sticking to his convictions all throughout his time in prison, as previous literary figures have done, Mantel presents More as being so caught up in the idea of his own conscience that he is unable to follow his contemporary Thomas Cromwell in trying to establish a better England. He’s self-flagellatory not solely because he believes in self-flagellation, but because – in a vaguely Trump-esque fashion – he needs to demonstrate that he believes in self-flagellation. She presents him as so caught up in his own pride – and hence, hypocrisy from a Christian perspective – that he lacks entirely in any form of hindsight.
And for the modern reader, More’s prejudices are exacerbated in comparison with the Cromwell household, a place of relative religious and social relaxation, teeming with nephews and cousins and painters and fools. This, ultimately, is what Mantel does so well. She is as aware of her modern readership as she is of 1530s England where the novel is set. As Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill (which I am currently reading), says in a 2016 Guardian editorial, “narrative requires a harmonious development of mood… [and] a shape that history may not obligingly provide.” So while Mantel sticks to the history we all know, she frames it in such a way as to evoke feelings of sympathy for Cromwell at his wife and daughters’ death, before taking him to an even lower ebb with Wolsey’s long-awaited demise, and then, from that rock-bottom foundation, she urges the reader to watch him rise. And we get behind him, because he manages to convince us that he has our concerns at heart, and because, in a court obsessed with empty, overblown courtesies such as Monseigneur, there’s a certain honest reality in Cromwell’s snide sense of humour and not-entirely-honest honesty. Mantel doesn’t need to make Cromwell a good person; she just needs to make him the protagonist. Yes, he might still be a shady guy who lurks in alleyways and will happily bribe and murder his way to the top, but he has a heart, or so it seems, and a certain self-awareness of his situation. There’s the sense that any moment now, he might turn to face us á la Francis Underwood: “Oh, don’t deny it,” he’ll say, “you’ve loved every second of this.”