By Wendy Smith
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt. 532 pp. $27
Henry VIII's quest to make Anne Boleyn his queen has inspired reams of historical fiction, much of it trashy and most of it trite. Yet from this seemingly shopworn material, Hilary Mantel has created a novel both fresh and finely wrought: a brilliant portrait of a society in the throes of disorienting change, anchored by a penetrating character study of Henry's formidable advisor, Thomas Cromwell. It's no wonder that her masterful book just won this year's Booker Prize in England.
Mantel's choice of protagonist signals her intelligence and artistic ambition. Cromwell was the quintessential 16th-century New Man, the son of a blacksmith who rose through Cardinal Wolsey's patronage and survived the cardinal's downfall to become the most powerful civil servant in Tudor England. Historians have long acknowledged Cromwell as the administrative genius who transformed a medieval fiefdom into a modern nation-state, but only an exceedingly bold novelist could envision this odyssey as the stuff of gripping fiction.
From the moment we see young Thomas knocked to the ground by his brutal father to the grim final scene at the execution of his enemy Thomas More in 1535, readers are intimately engaged in Cromwell's emotions and calculations. Mantel puts us inside the head of this secretive, complicated man, illuminating motives often misunderstood by others. Persuading Henry that only he can deliver the marriage and the absolute authority the king wants is a means to an end; Cromwell intends to make England a better place for the common people among whom he was born by destroying the corrupt Catholic clergy he despises and limiting the power of the entrenched aristocrats who despise him. He plans to get very rich along the way.
The present-tense narrative thrusts us into history, not as a stately procession of inevitable events, but a dynamic process shaped by an unstable agglomeration of individual wills, mass movements and random chance. Cromwell understands this better than anyone else in the novel. He observes, evaluates and makes his moves, but never shows his hand. He's a committed, albeit covert Protestant who runs uncharacteristic risks to protect the new movement's more militant adherents from the heretic-burning More (acidly depicted as a cruel, sanctimonious egomaniac nothing like the saintly hero of "A Man for All Seasons"). But Cromwell realizes that Henry, who would happily remain Catholic if the Pope would just give him what he wants, can only be led to the Reformation through his desire for Anne Boleyn. And though Cromwell respects Anne, a fellow upstart on the make, he's not staking his career on her ability to arrest the king's roving eye.
"Any little girl can hold the key to the future," he thinks as he chats with mousy young lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour. The Seymour family estate, Wolf Hall, gives the novel its title; the scandalous goings-on there -- Jane's father has been caught in flagrante with his son's wife -- serve as a metaphor for the licentious, overprivileged society through which Cromwell adroitly maneuvers. Alone among the self-absorbed plotters at Henry's court, he sees that this society is increasingly irrelevant.
Listening to a disgruntled earl pontificate about "ancient rights," Cromwell wonders how he can explain real life to this clueless nobleman. "The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined . . . not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of a bugle but by the click of the abacus." Cromwell belongs to this rising global order; he's been a wool trader in Antwerp and a banker in Florence, as well as a foot soldier in some continental army and a cook in an Italian kitchen. Sophisticated yet down-to-earth, he's not intimidated by England's insular elite, though he recognizes the power it holds. If Anne has a son and Henry lives another 20 years to bequeath the crown to an adult heir, he reckons, "I can build my own prince: to the glorification of God and the commonwealth of England."
That doesn't happen, of course, though resourceful Cromwell survives Elizabeth's birth and climbs still higher as the indispensable facilitator of Henry's schemes. Yet even readers unaware that he fell from favor and was executed as a traitor in 1540 -- five years beyond the novel's close and never hinted at in the text -- will sense that Cromwell's success can't last. The bleakly knowing veteran of poverty, prejudice and loss delineated here surely senses it too. A fiercely loyal friend, determined protector of kin, mentor of sharp young plebeians wherever he finds them, Cromwell nonetheless takes it as a given that "man is wolf to man."
Mantel has explored this uncomfortable idea in previous works, discerning no more kindness among the contemporary characters in "Vacant Possession" or "Beyond Black" than among the 18th-century combatants in "The Giant, O'Brien" or "A Place of Greater Safety." Like these predecessors, "Wolf Hall" is uncompromising and unsentimental, though alert readers will detect an underlying strain of gruff tenderness. Similarly, Mantel's prose is as plain as her protagonist (who's sensitive about his looks), but also (like Cromwell) extraordinarily flexible, subtle and shrewd. Enfolding cogent insights into the human soul within a lucid analysis of the social, economic and personal interactions that drive political developments, Mantel has built on her previous impressive achievements to write her best novel yet.
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.