Book Club Spy: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Book Club spy has been woefully inactive of late, however their swansong was an evening dedicated to Wolf Hall. It is highly unlikely that Don’t Read Too Fast readers will not have encountered this Booker Prize winning novel by Mantel, if they have not yet had the chance (or if they hated it, apparently some history graduates do) then it portrays the fall of Cardinal Wolsely and Thomas More during the rise of Anne Boleyn, from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view.
The novel opens on Cromwell as a boy in Putney being beaten by his drunken father in a rage. Despite being easily big enough to defend himself, he runs away to France. The first indication of his steely control comes through his explanation for his egress: “I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason”. He does not waste words, and is spurred on by logic and calculation, rather than fear.
We next meet him 27 years later, working as Cardinal Wolsely’s right hand. He is a lawyer, an accountant, and an enforcer with an opaque background as a mercenary and trader. Wolsely teaches him diplomacy (“You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook”) as he already knew money. He takes advantage of the fact that people think they know him – a thug from Putney, son of a blacksmith. It is a mistake assuming he is that easy to read, one that Stephen Gardiner makes early on but does not pay for until years later*. It is not Gardiner’s fault, as it is hard to see Cromwell’s true goal at times. He cares for his family but forges on apace after they are well provided for, he appreciates beautiful things and is a man of taste but is not greedy. He clearly likes power but does not want to rule alone. He sees sorting out the economy, getting the king with an heir and abolishing Catholicism as efficient. One Book Club member saw him as a NHS manager, of all things, which may seem overly odd but does broach the fact that he appears a very modern hero indeed, unconstrained by honour.
Mantel describes his visage: “Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement… His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury…He will take a bet on anything.” And indeed he does: on Boleyn becoming queen, that he can arrange an annulment for the King without breaking from Rome, and for wrestling the money from the monks, whom he loathes for lying. “Arrange your face” becomes an adage, but of course he is arranging everything in sight.
Wolsely’s heart giving out after he has been abandoned by certain member of the Privy Chamber fuels Cromwell’s sense of revenge. Mourning Wolsely (whose final words included: “Look at my face: I am not afraid of any man alive”) one of his aides asked for “God to send vengeance on Harry Percy”.
To which Cromwell responds: “God need not trouble, he thinks: I shall take it in hand.”
Mantel’s love for the charismatic brute shines from the page. She was rigorous about only portraying him in places and at times that he feasibly could have been in with a legendarily complex system of index cards, however she undeniably bends history to put him in best light. She shirks from showing him as a killer, which he was, instead choosing to show the threat that lurks under the surface, while concentrating on his most human aspect. There is a scene where he weeps in the chapel holding his wife’s prayer book shortly after her death at the same time as their two daughters. He brushes Cavendish off when he encounters him at such a moment, rather than admitting that he feels everything slipping away from him.
He expresses his doubts regarding his sense of faith as: “what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.” It is his reassessment of previously unasssilable practises of reading the psalms in English that first connects his fate to that of Anne Boleyn, who was also keen on a banned book.
Anne undeniably wields power over Henry VIII for quite a spate of time within the book, however Wolf Hall does portray the only true power women had in the sixteenth century as withholding sex. The pressure upon women to bear sons rapidly following the moment when they are allowed to give in to any kind of sexual urge is palpable. There is a poignant air of general sadness surrounding the Sixty Day Prince over an entire winter within the world of the novel. Anne is made to be seen as an impressive failure (pus fellatio was fairly frowned upon and seen as desperate as well as unclean) for producing Elizabeth, and in pursuing her own agenda she defies family and is selfish to the core for doing so.
Having been made to realize the novel was more condensed with detail than previously considered, seeing both Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies in the space of a week at The Aldywch impresses upon the audience, in case they did not fully appreciate it, that Mantel’s books are enormous. There is no time to include wonderful scenes from the book such as Cromwell serving chicken and pomegranates to his co-conspirators before Anne is crowned, but there are sacrifices to be made in showing over a decade within three hours.
I found it a slight shame that they had to cut a scene where a Putney boatman advises Cromwell that Anne is “a slippery dipper from the slime”, while he is planning her ascension. His ease at talking to strangers is masterful, but it was replaced with some hammy French spoken by one of his assassins/aides.
Fortunately, one of the most universally beloved scenes from the book makes it onto the stage and is wonderfully executed: the moment Cromwell is summoned to Anne’s chambers as there has been a murder. Of her dog. It is unclear whether Anne cries for her dog or herself. There is an incredibly satirically air of whodunit about which of her put upon ladies in waiting elbowed the little runt off the windowledge, but my money is on Jane Seymour.
Notes: *he waits until Boleyn needs somewhere to spend her confinement in peace, and recommends she uses Gardiner’s house just as the poor man has spent decades getting the gardens just to where he could finally enjoy them. Old world problems.