I am late arriving to Hilary Mantel’s fabulous, Booker-winning Wolf Hall, which tells the rise (and rise) of Thomas Cromwell, from the lowly son of a blacksmith to the highest of courtiers to the Tudor King, Henry VIII, drawn against the backdrop of the annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Queen Katherine and the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the schism in the church it creates. I don’t intend to spend time outlining the story; there’s enough of that elsewhere. What I want to muse on is Mantel’s characterisation of Cromwell, the master power-broker.
In most novels we find a protagonist who wants something and we follow them as they set about to get it. Their desire is clear to us, and though in the best of stories they might get what they ‘need’ rather than what they ‘want’, their want is outlined from the off. (We get to see their need as the story develops.) What Mantel does in the close-third-person, present-tense re-creation of Cromwell is very interesting. For much of the novel, his desire is hidden, unstated, slippery. After travelling abroad, learning languages, banking, the art of relationships, he finds himself returning toLondon to take up the business of a lawyer. Here he serves the infamous Cardinal Wolsey very well (as well as maintaining his own business affairs), and we see his loyalty and cunning, but, there is no overt desire stated. It is only much later, after Wolsey’s death, when Cromwell is rising up the ranks in Henry’s court (much to the dismay of all the high-born councillors), that he begins to ask for some things. But even then it is more a case of Henry thrusting positions and honours upon him without him asking for them.
This lack of inner awareness is wonderful characterisation. Cromwell’s as slippery as aThameseel. Henry’s old friends wonder who he is and how he got to where he is, [p394]:
Brandon grunts. ‘We all are [guided by Cromwell]. We must be. You do everything, Cromwell. You are everything now. We say, how did it happen? We ask ourselves … but by the steaming blood of Christ we have no bloody answer.’
In a way, Cromwell can’t answer them, for he is spellbound by himself as well. Late in the book he thinks, [p577]:
I shall not indulge More, …or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?
Alice More, wife of Thomas, is under no illusion as to his abilities, telling him, [p605]:
‘My husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’
The construct of a man who acts on instinct rather than pre-planning is reinforced time and time again. What could be a better way of constructing Cromwell’s rise than to do it in this way? It’s brilliant.
The depiction of the courtiers’ cut and thrust is sublime. The dialogue is delicious, the humour ripe. There’s one instance, after Cromwell discusses a carpet which he is wondering whether should be put on the wall or the floor. Says Stephen Gardiner to Cromwell:
‘We all know that money sticks to your hands.’
Like the aphids to More’s roses. ‘No,’ [Cromwell] sighs. ‘It passes through them, alas. You know, Stephen, how I love luxury. Show me a carpet, and I’ll walk on it.’
Then there’s the moment when Cromwell comes to court to see Henry and is refused entry thus, [p422]:
‘The king cannot see you this monring. He and Lady Anne are composing some music for the harp.’
Rafe catches his eye and they walk away. ‘Let us hope in time they have a little song to show for it.’
Cromwell is a master at reading people’s faces and body language. The way he knows that Henry has (finally) bedded Anne is a joy. (I’ll leave it for you to discover how.)
Research is woven into the prose effortlessly. Take for instance this passage, where it builds upon the picture of Cromwell’s commercial prowess as he ingratiates himself to a Welsh merchant so he could marry his daughter: [p41]:
“Latterly, Wykys had grown tired, let the business slide. He was still sending broadcloth to the north German market, when – in his opinion, with wool so long in the fleece these days, and good broadcloth so hard to weave – he ought to be getting into kerseys, lighter cloth like that, exporting through Antwerp to Italy.”
There are some beautifully lyrical sections, including many of the early chapter ends. Take, for instance, this end to the first chapter: [p16]:
“He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a grey wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.”
It seems remiss to just look at Cromwell’s characterisation, for all the characters are so deftly drawn. Wolesy is a marvellous creation, so too Anne and Mary Boleyn.
Cromwell works very hard, and as the new positions of trust are added onto all the old ones, he increasingly wants for a day off. Anne Boleyn’s coronation sees him organise everything, even the weather. And then there’s the business of Thomas More and all the recalcitrant papists running aboutEngland. The want of a day off ties in nicely with the book’s end.
I might have come late to Mantel’s marvellous Tudor world, but I won’t be as tardy when Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, is released next month.
Hilary Mantel is ‘appearing’ (via video-link) at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, talking about Bring up the Bodies. See here for details.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Source: the bookshelf rainbow