We’ve talked so much about Thomas Cromwell these past weeks that this time around, I was hoping we could turn our attention to the women in his orbit and his life: Jo and Alice, who are almost, but not quite, his daughters; Helen Barre, who is the latest addition to his household; Anne, his queen, and Mary, her sister; Catherine, who was queen.
Much of the action in “Wolf Hall” is taken by men, but their victories and failures have enormous importance for the women affected by them. And in these chapters, we see what it’s like to be on the right and wrong side of men’s desires.
Anne is the only real winner — although it’s clear that winning may be a tenuous thing. Still, for that shining moment when she is first pregnant and everything seems possible, when on the day of her coronation, Henry “kisses her without formality, scooping back her gown, pinning it at her sides to show her belly to England,” the romance of her position is thrilling. “I was always desired,” Anne tells Cromwell. “But now I am valued. And that is a different thing, I find.” How, she doesn’t quite say, but you can see it in Cromwell’s thoughts and Henry’s hopes. What a thing it would be to save a country a civil war, to secure a dynasty.
Few women in the world can be valued in such a way, but as Mantel makes clear, all of them can be victimized. Mantel shows us the cost of men’s desires ruling women over and over again in this section of the novel. We see Helen Barre, escaping from an abusive husband gone blessedly missing, first into a convent that would strip her of her children, then into the more humane embrace of Cromwell’s household. Just because a man is benevolent doesn’t make dependence on him something other than dependence. And benevolence can sometimes be rather toothless: “How hard did you try?” Mary Boleyn asks Cromwell, who has failed to protect her from Henry, who insists on having sex with her while Anne is pregnant. Cromwell’s “I could not dissuade him from his liking for you” is a feeble defense. And benevolence can be a weapon, too, one that Cromwell uses as he tries gently but persistently to dislodge Catherine from her position as Henry’s legal wife. “You see, do you, that it is impossible for me to believe that for twenty years I was a harlot?” Catherine asks him.
That’s the thing about Cromwell: We’ve both been drawn to him for his clarity of vision. But seeing isn’t always acting, and vision can shade into moral equivalence. What do you think of our hero, and of the women around him, this week?
I guess I think Cromwell is somewhat more enlightened in his view of women than most of his contemporaries, but that’s not saying much. The way he takes care of Jo and Alice is loving. The way he understands Helen’s plight and takes her into the household is particularly admirable. The way he breaks off his sexual relationship with Johane, however, is problematic. He expects her to understand and accept that the liaison has become inconvenient. She accepts this, but it was pretty much a unilateral decision. He doesn’t allow himself to love her. I think she might have loved him, though, if given the chance.
He does notice women and recognize their agency in a way that other men seem not to. Certainly this is the case with Anne, and with her sister, Mary, and with Jane Seymour. But I don’t think he has gotten beyond thinking of women largely in terms of their usefulness to men — as ways of establishing links between families, as producers of heirs, as spies. And he doesn’t seem to imagine that they would have abilities that he associates with men. Look at his household, for example. Might Jo or Alice be good at sums and accounts? We have no idea. It doesn’t seem to occur to Cromwell that they might be.
I’m glad you mentioned the way Cromwell might be missing out on the talents of the young women in his household, because it lets me highlight a moment I love from these chapters: the scene where Alice tells him that Jo is more than capable of handling her part of the interrogation of the prophetess Elizabeth Barton. “Nothing gets by Jo,” Alice says firmly, and Cromwell wonders, “Does it not? That child perpetually in tears over her spoiled sewing? That grubby little girl sometimes found rolling under a table with a wet dog, or chasing a peddler down the street?” Just as he missed that Jane Seymour had grown up, he couldn’t quite see Jo as mature and capable, perhaps even in the same vein as himself, until someone else pointed it out.
That’s in keeping with the idea that there are parts of women’s lives that are fundamentally mysterious to men, which Mantel explores in a lovely passage as Anne prepares to give birth. The idea that a laboring woman needs to be able to “make her own weather” is an apt way of putting it, even now, when modern medicine means that the journey toward motherhood is less risky.
But the assumption that an inherent part of the process of bringing a new life into the world is that “prayers are said that men never hear” is a mistake, as is the idea that Anne’s delivery of a daughter rather than a son will be a disaster for England. “Wolf Hall” is fundamentally a piece of literary overshadowing. Mostly that foreboding is about the end of Henry’s second marriage, which we know is inevitable even if he and Cromwell do not. But hanging over all of this is the fact that Henry’s quest for a son is ultimately unnecessary, given the Elizabethan age that lies ahead.
It is indeed ironic that Henry’s frustration and disappointment lead to one of the greatest and most consequential reigns in British history, that of Elizabeth I. We already know the whole story, yet we read on. That brings me again to my admiration of Mantel’s writing. One of the brilliant choices she makes is not to dwell on the big signpost moments we already know about.
Wolsey’s final agony, for example, happens offstage. We don’t see it; we know only what Cromwell learns from witnesses. We see little of Anne’s interaction with Henry; we depend on her sister, Mary, and others around her to tell us what’s going on between them. Yet we had page after vivid page about the burning of a Loller whose name is not in any history book. In part, this is all a product of the book’s being written from Cromwell’s point of view. But it is very clever, I think, the way Mantel chooses to bypass events that a different author might have been tempted to make a huge deal of. She manages to make a familiar story seem new.