Oh crikey, I need to read more Booker winners.
I’m not an historian, nor was I ever particularly good at History at school. My memory of learning about Henry VIII et al. was when I was 12 and we learnt a bit about his reign; I also remember a little rhyme I learnt at primary school:
Henry the Eighth, he had six wives
All of them lived in fear of their lives
Two were beheaded and one of them died
Two were divorced and one survived!
That’s about it. Really intelligent stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Of course, I know who Thomas Cromwell is, as an historical figure. I have no doubt that I probably studied him in depth at some point during my school years but before reading Wolf Hall I couldn’t remember much about his life and career. I know he’s generally villainised in popular culture, and some of the reviews of Wolf Hall that I heard before reading the book praised Mantel’s portrayal of the man as someone who is a little more well-rounded and fleshed out than your average two-dimensional scoundrel. I particularly enjoyed a soundbite from Rachel Cooke from the Observer who was so unsettled by this depiction that she was led to remark: ‘I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’.
Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy about Cromwell’s life, won the Man Booker prize in 2009; the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, scooped the prize in 2012 – making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice and perhaps the first sequel to win when its predecessor also won, but I’d have to fact-check that before making any bold claims. The final instalment The Mirror and the Light is due this year, and whether that will give Mantel a Booker hat-trick remains to be seen. It seems absurd to talk about winning the Booker three times in a row as if it’s comparable to potting a ball of paper in a wastepaper basket; I mean, this is the sodding BOOKER, arguably THE most prestigious literary prize in the world. It’s no easy task to win it once, let alone twice. Of course she’ll face stiff competition this year now that they’ve opened the doors to American writers, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Either way, I knew this book was going to be brilliant. With that reputation hovering behind it, how could it not be?
Hard to know if I’m giving you spoilers here as you probably learnt it all at school, but I’ll give you the gist. Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from around 1500 – 1530, with a brief opening chapter about his life as a teenager before it skips forward to his life at Austin Friars in 1527, married and with children, and in service to the Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Very little is known about Cromwell’s early life and this is echoed in the book; he reminisces occasionally about his past and his escape abroad from a violent father but he doesn’t know his own birth date, nor is he completely sure of his age. Fairly early on we see the downfall of the Cardinal who wouldn’t agree with annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Queen Katherine, as she is referred to in the book) so he could marry Anne Boleyn – Mantel seems to be relying on her readers’ own historical knowledge here, as the reason for his downfall is never explicitly stated in the book. From then on we see the ‘rise and rise’ of Thomas Cromwell, who did indeed rise above the potentially damaging association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and, using his wit and political know-how, became the king’s right hand man.
Mantel paints a vivid picture of 16th Century England – or rather, a decent picture through the eyes of someone who lives in it and hasn’t seen it any other way. That is a triumph; there is no modern hand hovering over this novel, nor is there any sense of hindsight, which helps keep the reader absorbed in the characters’ immediate stories. I’m no real judge myself but critics have praised Mantel’s dedication to historical accuracy, particularly with such a huge cast of characters – so big that it requires its own list at the beginning of the book that takes up pages and pages, which I had to refer back to continually while I read. Of course, there are certain elements that seem ridiculous to the 21st Century eye. One of the main being the sexual politics at play, and how much worth a woman’s virginity has, even to someone as high up the social ladder as the king. The entire political tension revolves around the idea that Queen Katherine MIGHT not have been a virgin when they wed, and Anne Boleyn definitely is (though you’re never sure). There is, of course, an obscene amount of pressure placed on Henry’s wife – whoever she is at the time – to produce a son, and therefore an heir, for him. Knowing as we do that Henry had no legitimate sons that lived to reach adulthood, it’s particularly wince-inducing to see him despair over and over again.
The sexual politics may seem old fashioned but, echoing the words of another Observer reviewer (‘[the book is] a dark mirror held up to our own world’), they aren’t entirely out of place to a modern reader. At one point, Mary Shelton comments to Cromwell that when a woman produces a son, the man takes the praise, but when she fails or it is evident that one of the party is infertile, it is the woman’s fault. This kind of one-sided parenthood still rings hollow in the modern age, with all kinds of pressure placed on women as mothers, whether it’s raising a child as a single parent when the parents have split or having to deal with the stigma and consequences of abortion. All of this because of the simple biological fact that the baby happens to grow inside the woman, not the man. We’ve moved on from the Tudor times but we’re not out of the woods yet.
Despite the sheer amount of characters (I counted the list – there are 96), the characterisation is strong. Obviously we get the best picture of Cromwell, who is an incredible literary protagonist simply because of the amount of depth he has. My copy of Wolf Hall included an interesting interview with Mantel at the back, in which she said she chose to focus on Cromwell because of pure curiosity as to how a blacksmith’s son could rise up to such prestige, and also from a letter he’d penned that revealed he had a strong sense of humour. She mentions that biographers don’t touch on his personal life at all, and while he can be seen as something of a wolf in court, letters from the time suggest his household was pleasant and his children had happy upbringings. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Cromwell has his famous painting done, which you can find easily on Google but I’ve included it here:
What impression do we get from the man in this image? Cold, regal, unemotive, perhaps. But Mantel’s fictional Cromwell doesn’t see himself like that – in fact, he is taken aback by the painting, as are his family and loved ones. I feel these quotes from two of the members of his household sum it up well:
‘”I don’t think you look like that,” Helen Barre says. “I see that your features are true enough. But that is not the expression on your face.”
Rafe says, “No, Helen, he saves it for men.”‘
I have to constantly remind myself that throughout the novel, this isn’t really Cromwell speaking, that this is just a fictional version – for all I know the painting might have been a faithful representation of his face and character – but it does make a fair point about how much emphasis we place on portraiture from certain periods when we have little else to go on. We make our own assumptions of character based on a person’s image, but we forget how staged the whole process is. Mantel details a little bit about the procedure: how Cromwell was asked to sit, what he should be holding, how he should place his hands, his clothes. For royalty, this is even more of an orchestrated process. How much about a person’s real personality can we glean from these images?
The other characters are similarly complex; you don’t get the sense that there is one wholly good or one wholly bad person in it. Henry VIII is particularly fascinating, portrayed as almost childlike and flaky with his own emotions and decisions – a familiar sight to historians, I’m sure, but it was far from the grand figure I expected him to be (based on, well, his portraiture). In other ways, he is exactly the kind of character you WOULD expect, what with the way he moved through wives and his own mood swings (though Mantel attributed those partly to the numerous health conditions he suffered with). Anne Boleyn is also an interesting character, portrayed as fairly cunning and unsympathetic but, by the end and particularly when her long-awaited son turns out to be a daughter, as much a victim of the oppressive monarchy as Henry is. Keep track of the characters if you can, as Mantel’s style means 9 times out of 10 when you see the word ‘he’, the pronoun is referring to Cromwell – even if it follows on directly from the mention of another male character. It takes a little getting used to but it’s another individual facet to Mantel’s style that makes it so enjoyable, and increases the overall suspicion that Cromwell is actually narrating the story, referring to himself in third person.
This was a few years post-Wolf Hall (closer to Bring Up the Bodies, I think) but it seems prudent to highlight that Mantel herself was villainised to the general public when she wrote a perceptive essay about Kate Middleton and her place in the modern monarchy. Kate is the nation’s darling, as beloved as Diana was, although seemingly having a much better time with the royal family than her would-be mother-in-law did. Mantel said that modern expectations of Kate only require her to exist and look pretty, making sure to keep any personality or quirk under the rug. This wasn’t an attack on Kate herself as it was an attack on the system and the media – it’s a fascinating essay, you can read it here – but the press turned on Mantel and even David Cameron said her comments were unjust. The problem is, I suppose, is that there’s an unspoken agreement to adore and never criticise or question our royal family. We assume from a few smiles and snatched whispers that Kate and William have simply the perfect relationship; that Kate is flawless, and that no doubt Prince George will grow up and fit right into the cookie-cutter mould he needs to be the future monarch. Things are slowly moving on from the stiff, traditional monarchy – George is the first heir who would succeed to the throne regardless of whether he was born male or female, for example – but if you dare to imply that Kate is having to hide her personality from the media (which of COURSE she is, come on now) you’re the enemy. At any rate, I saw Mantel’s comments in a new light once I’d read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and observed the kind of measures the Boleyns would resort to in order to have access to the throne. Could that irresistible Tudor power be comparable to anything our modern royal family has? Definitely not. Although, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure I agree with Mantel entirely. She might have implied that Kate is as much a victim to her public image as Marie Antoinette was, but you can bet Antoinette didn’t have Hello magazine and the obsessive celebrity culture of the 21st century stalking her footsteps.
The Royal Shakespeare Company created two plays based on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies which I hear they often stage back-to-back – a hefty experience for all involved, but no doubt a fantastic one. I was desperate to snag tickets, but they were just too expensive, which is a real shame. My friend Misha’s mum saw the Wolf Hall play with a hardcore theatre buddy who came out remarking that it was a perfect play: perfectly cast, perfectly staged, perfectly acted, and so on. They’ve now taken the productions to Broadway. On the small screen, the BBC created a six-part TV adaptation of the two books, with the first episode airing on Wednesday night. It’s got a pretty amazing cast – Mark Rylance takes the lead as Thomas Cromwell, with Damian Lewis as Henry VIII (yes!), Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey. I suspect they’ll carry it on once The Mirror and the Light is published, but we’ll have to wait and see. Spoilers below.
Like the early pages of the book, I thought the first episode of Wolf Hall was particularly confusing – I have no idea how those who hadn’t read the book were able to keep track of the plot and immense cast of characters, or even appreciate the finer touches in the script. For example: there’s a scene where Cromwell looks over his dead wife Liz and is told she spoke on her deathbed about a time she held a snake in Italy. As Cromwell is told about this, his eyes widen, as readers will know that that was his own anecdote to tell, not Liz’s – but beyond that brief flicker on his face, it is never mentioned again. Generally speaking, the critics adored it, with some calling it ‘close to perfect television’, and Mantel herself, who wasn’t involved in the drama (unlike the RSC play, which she oversaw), supposedly gave it the thumbs up. Good enough for me!
So, Goodreads! Five stars. I won’t say this was the best book I read in 2014 because I remember The Luminaries only too fondly, but it’s in the top three. Now to sink my teeth into Bring Up the Bodies…
[Coming next: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel]