Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Review: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)

The book chronicles the fortunes of Thomas Cromwell, an English statesman and Protestant sympathiser who had worked previously for Henry VIII’s leading adviser, Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey failed to achieve the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Spain, and was arrested. The cardinal died en route to London where he was to be tried.
Cromwell survived and prospered under Henry, the English monarch most desirous of a live son.

The title of the book is ironic, as Wolf Hall turns out to be the home seat of Jane Seymour, an attendant on Anne Boleyn, whose inability to deliver the desired live son led to her dramatic downfall.

Cromwell, the fixer, has his eye on Seymour and, the final page of the novel having arrived, works to alter the course of the king’s annual Progress so that it stops at Wolf Hall. Then the book ends.

We know, of course, that Seymour will get married to the king later and, tiresome as it sounds, will also lose her head. Modern scholarship says that Henry had a sexually-transmitted disease that made him infertile.

Much of the action in the book takes place at court or at one of Cromwell’s domiciles. We never enter Parliament, which is a shame as that inclusion may have lessened the burden carried by the king’s mere desires, in deciding the fates of the men and women who surrounded him.

But we are constantly reminded that the king is ever forced to generate support for his decisions in order to prevent rebellion and civil strife. Parliament was a key element of the court’s damage control efforts, and Cromwell was the chief means at the king’s disposal toward achieving the official sanction it offers.

Mantel’s art is to take us into the daily round of life in the Renaissance. It was a tough life of shocks and close relationships among family. Men such as Cromwell assembled a wide household around themselves, which included men to do things and wards to take care of children. Others are introduced into the household out of charity.

Death was omnipresent.

The role of religion is present, in the book, in the language used in the course of daily life. Fear of death and the part played by conscience in decision-making meant that one’s relationship to God was as important as one’s relationship to a husband or wife. For a monarch, the demands of statesmanship and the requirement to be ready at all times for war meant that sovereignty had become a more persistent concern than in the past. Allegiance to norms set in Rome, within the Catholic See, had become something of a relic under the new ethos of independence. It is not surprising, then, that the Reformation occurred in its most dramatic form in Northern Europe.

In England, self-determination had already taken the form of the Lollard heresy, a generation before the events that take place in the book. The Lollards, like the Lutherans, desired to be able to read their scriptures in the vernacular.

Mantel also makes Anne Boleyn a Protestant. Being intimate with the court, Anne would anyway have been able to secure copies of English translations of the Bible. But Mantel turns her into a stout follower of Luther, and does the same with Cromwell.

Personal preferences could very quickly become a public matter, in the Renaissance, as heresy was a sin punishable by a very unpleasant death.

The most rigid persecutor of heretics, Thomas More (author of bestselling book Utopia), himself faces the block as a result of an inability to bring himself to swear that Henry was now head of the Church of England.

To complete her task, Mantel must have read very widely. Her command of contemporary terminology is astonishing. Equally surprising is her grasp of the political and religious issues of the time.

The book won the Man Booker Prize last year and, in my estimation, the judges made a good choice.


Delete Monkey said...

One or two problems here, Matt.

Jane Seymour did not lose her head. She died while giving birth to Henry's son, the future King Edward VI, in 1537. Henry cannot have always been infertile as he fathered three legitimate children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward (all future monarchs) as well as at least one bastard son - the Duke of Richmond, who features briefly in the novel. He is generally thought to have suffered from syphilis, which may well have rendered him infertile in later life (although he was 46 when Edward was born).

Glad you liked the book though; I thought it was great too. I believe there is going to be a sequel, as the rather abrupt ending of the book suggests.

Matt da Silva said...

Thanks for the correction. I just get so mixed up with all those dead queens!