Confessions of an Unjustified Ignoramus: The Pleasures of WOLF HALL
Not that I'm exactly alone in my appreciation. The reviews have been rapturous, the accolades universal. Wolf Hall didn't only receive Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize this year; it was the oddsmakers' favorite since the short list of (spectacular) finalists was announced.
But I'm probably relatively alone -- if not in my pristine ignorance of its subject, then in my complete lack of prior interest in it.
Because before I read this book, not only did I know absolutely zip about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall's towering, tough, surprisingly sympathetic, and entirely absorbing subject (who was King Henry VIII's chief minister and active fixer during the period of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn).
But I had very little curiosity about his period, having learneed barely enough to get through high school European history: Henry leaving the Catholic Church and seizing the monasteries was about all you needed, though the lonely heroism of Thomas More might be worked into an essay question, while "one died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded" might get you some extra credit. And I continued not to care much, even amidst all the Philippa Gregory hoopla of the last few years. I didn't bother about the Scarlett Johansson movie or the Tudors on TV -- though I will cop to always feeling slightly smug, knowing why Donwell Abbey is Donwell Abbey.
Of course, there was the high school pilgrimage to see A Man for All Seasons on Broadway, obligatory during a certain era for honor students from Long Island. But if there were any surprises to be found there, any ironies or complications of the mid-twentieth century liberal chronicle of Thomas More's resistance of conscience in the face of Henry's cynical operatives (Thomas Cromwell being chief among them), I've got to say they quite eluded my impatient adolescent imagination. While the King himself, bigger than life in the famous portrait, has, I confess, always seemed to me somewhat less than alive, so meticulously outlined by Hans Holbein the Younger's brush, so easily and too readily understood as a creature of outsized will and appetites.
Lusty -- isn't that the word that comes to mind, and much too quickly, imo. Odd how sometimes a word can obscure so much more than it reveals.
Which is not, necessarily, to fault Robert Bolt for what I might have missed in his play. While as for Holbein's painting: certainly the nuanced subtleties of his portrait of Henry -- the massiveness of the shoulders surrounding (as Mantel's text points out) the pampered daintiness of the mouth -- are there to see for anyone who really looks. It's clearly nobody's fault but my own that I wasn't understanding much.
But what I have to marvel at is, that thanks to Wolf Hall, my ignorance and inattention have been quite deliciously, almost unfairly rewarded, by allowing me such a fullness of latter-day discovery of this past world and its events though Mantel's rendering of Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, who rose to the heights of power amid the intrigues of the Tudor court. As Mantel tells it, the story of the man who managed Henry's divorce and marriage (avoiding war with the Pope while expropriating vast church properties) is an ongoing astonishment, a brilliant use of what historians do know and what they can't -- to build a credible human being, who just (we think and think and think again as the story unfolds) might have been something like that; a Thomas Cromwell who might have seen, thought, experienced things in just that way.
Credible and yet astonishing. As real people in the real world sometimes emerge from the background when we manage to see the world through their eyes for a brief empathic instant.
I don't think it would have worked without its brief, brilliant, brutal opening scene.
"So now get up."
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
Another blow -- from the then-fifteen-year-old Thomas Cromwell's insanely, inexplicably violent father -- does come, but it's not properly placed and doesn't kill him. Nor does the boy get up. Not yet, anyway; he's got the remainder of the book in which to rise to the fabulous fullness of his political power. Now he simply absorbs the violence, plays for time, profits from a momentary lucky distraction to creep away, pass out, and survive the blows of a world he didn't make. Coming to consciousness the next day, he escapes his father's rages by leaving England, spending his young manhood on the continent as a soldier, a trader, a secretary and translator -- picking up the ways of the world as he goes, not only in courts, but in kitchens and counting houses.
Look again at that portrait of Henry, and at Holbein's portrait of Thomas Cromwell, here. Look only only at the men, though, but at the richness of the fabrics, the furs, the textiles and carpets, the stuffs that were being measured and traded out of Antwerp, the metals and minerals coming in on ships from the New World. Mantel's Thomas Cromwell is a man who's learned at first hand about the ways of wealth. When we meet him again -- after he's returned from his young man's education in the world -- we meet a man whose fingers know the weave of a carpet, the weight of a bag of coins.
But we know from that first scene that he's also a man whose body knows the ways of blunt, stupid, arbitrary power. The writing continues unfailingly, densely immediate as Cromwell measures, evaluates, acts, judges, and also desires and loves, mourns and endures. He loses a beloved wife and daughter in an afternoon of summer plague. It's a world where things are both bigger and smaller than we're accustomed to, wherein a man of Cromwell's competence can gather the tools of power, hear the hums and feel the stirrings of new religious and philosophical knowledges as though mastering the fine points of forging horseshoes in his father's smithy.
Written in a continuing present tense and an unremitting Cromwell-centered point of view (one of the few examples of that p.o.v. technology I've encountered that justifies the word deep), I read it as a kind of manna from historical fiction heaven, the best example of what I want from that kind of writing: the marvelous plenitude of detail and evidence and the daring, wide-ranging speculation that creates a world and a person within it. oneThe felt knowledge, as I've written more than once on this blog, that our now-familiar past was someone else's challenging, don't-know-how-it'll-end present.
Can one accomplish that in historical romance? Ultimately no, I think, though I do try for momentary effects, flashes of understanding, and challenges to the genre's received wisdom (surprise! the British Home Office wasn't all wisdom and gentlemanly rectitude post-Waterloo, devoted only to the good of its citizens and the defense of the Prince Regent's substantial person).
But in the main, historical romance has other virtues, other structuring characteristics. As I've written about before and as I'll try to write about again in the light of Wolf Hall.
What a book.
Have you read it? Do you intend to? And if you have, what did you think of it?