Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
Mountains of books, fiction and nonfiction, have been written about Henry VIII and his wives, particularly Anne Boleyn. But Hilary Mantel’s novels are unlike any of them.
First of all, they aren’t about Henry at all. Their main, viewpoint character is Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose from blacksmith’s abused son to become arguably the most powerful man in England. Second, they are complex and beautiful literary works that well deserve the Booker Prizes they both won.
Wolf Hall, published in 2009, deals with Cromwell’s youth and rise to power under Cardinal Wolsey and then King Henry, his family life, and his maneuvering in bringing about Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Bring Up the Bodies, published in 2012, deals with Henry’s disillusionment with Anne, his attraction to Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s unscrupulous means of ridding the king of Anne and her troublesome family.
In these novels Mantel accomplishes the kind of revision of history that only fiction can. She dares to take on a historical character who is almost universally reviled and make him into a many-layered, complex human being. The world knows Cromwell, to the extent it knows him at all, as Henry VIII’s closest advisor, marital strategist, and hatchet man. He is not generally as well known as his later kinsman, Oliver Cromwell, but what the world does know is mostly repugnant. Grasping, self-interested, ruthless, scheming, ambitious without scruples, selling his ability and loyalty to whoever can benefit him the most, be it Cardinal Wolsey or King Henry—all of this is received wisdom about Thomas Cromwell. And though it may all be true, Mantel has managed to temper that perception of him for at least as long as the reader is under the spell of her writing.
Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey
The secret to her success may well be her manipulation of point of view. She uses a close third person that somehow reads like first person yet maintains a crucial distance between reader and character. By referring to her protagonist as “he,” even the first time we meet him, she puts the reader inside Cromwell’s mind yet still manages to withhold just enough so that we don’t feel we really know the inmost soul of him. It creates an effect similar to first person without the degree of self-revelation that first person provides.
This device does tend to create some pronoun confusion, particularly in Wolf Hall, forcing the reader to stop and reread to understand which character is being referred to. Probably this slight flaw was pointed out by critics, because she makes an effort in the second novel to clarify more—to say “he, Cromwell” when there’s chance of confusion. But it works just as well, so nothing is lost.
This use of point of view manipulates the reader—in the best manner of great fiction—by causing us to forget or skip over the elisions in Cromwell’s story, the things Mantel partly withholds from us, including the most base elements in Cromwell’s character and the real nature of his maneuverings. These things, filtered through Cromwell’s mind as part of the duties he owes his king, become almost unremarkable, mixed in as they are with such duties as his handling of the royal treasury.
In Wolf Hall Mantel shows us a man who has become self-made, who has worked his way up from the roughness of his childhood to somehow become educated and erudite, a man who has traveled Europe and worked in many professions, eventually becoming a lawyer and protégé to Wolsey, who was then the most powerful man in England after the king. She shows us Cromwell’s devotion and loyalty to the cardinal, a genuine feeling that curves back in a surprising way during the events of Bring Up the Bodies.
She shows us a loving family man who is devastated at the loss of his wife and two daughters to the plague, a man who takes in orphans and destitute people, shares his home with them, makes several of them proteges of his own. It’s a startling look at the man that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of him. And in making Cromwell actually sympathetic, Mantel hides much of his cruelty and horrid deeds; so that when, in Bring Up the Bodies, we see all of his terrible ruthlessness come out in his persecution of Anne and her putative lovers, it’s even more chilling coming from this character we thought we knew.
Mantel makes us want to believe that Cromwell wasn’t the monster that history paints him as, makes us wonder whether his case might be more like that of Richard III; will these books spawn a Thomas Cromwell Society, dedicated to erasing the stains of history from his name? Of course, the history of the Tudor regime and the sixteenth century is documented just about down to every stitch of clothing; it doesn’t seem likely that Cromwell has been too unfairly represented. Yet these books carry the message of inscrutability that much great fiction illuminates: that the human mind and heart are always a mystery. Psychology has taught us that a person’s actions are mediated by context, by time and place, by the society he or she lives in and what’s necessary to survive in the world, nearly as much as they are by character and personality, and this is especially true of times as brutal as that of the Tudors. Was Cromwell an unfeeling monster, or was he a man who had decency in him that was corrupted by his insular world? Mantel raises the question and leaves us to try to answer it.
As a lover of English history, I’ve always tended toward the Plantagenets and hated the Tudors. But since reading these books I’ve read biographies of Catherine of Aragon and of Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s archbishop of Canterbury; I have found a sudden fascination for the people who surrounded the Tudors, who aided or were victimized by them. The real achievement of a historical novelist is to make her readers think and reconsider what we know or thought we knew about a person or a period, to excite our curiosity to learn more; this is Mantel’s achievement in these novels. And I was thrilled to find out that she is writing one more novel to make a Cromwellian trilogy; I can’t wait for it to be published. Bring up the next book!
The Tower of London--where Henry's enemies ended up.