I’ve just finished reading – and enjoying – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I watched the TV series several months ago. I won’t go into that contrast in detail, but I’ll touch on a few points as I go.
Mantel’s writing style is incredibly smooth. It’s an effortless pleasure to read and it carries the reader along, through a book that is over 600 pages long. It does that even though the narrative drivers aren’t always obvious. That was something I found missing in the TV show – watching that I felt as though I was missing something, as though the scenes were significant just not for me. That sense of removal isn’t a problem in the book – it flows smoothly and easily.
One of the most fundamental and interesting questions is how Mantel deals with Cromwell’s character. Both his role in the story, and the composition of his personality.
Part of how Mantel deals with Cromwell is to make him a superman. He can solve any and every problem – interpersonal, logistical, political, sexual, and anything else that Cardinal or King needs. He does it in a way that seems effortless – there is very little sense of him struggling, wearied under what must have been an incredibly difficult role. The closest we come is seeing him deal with the fall of the cardinal – his struggle to make a draughty residence habitable. But for the most part his meteoric rise seem somehow attributable to innate qualities – his peculiar combination of personal and intellectual genius. He is intimately familiar with violence – has a history of it, and uses implied threats to intimidate gentry. He’s also brilliant at interpersonal negotiations, and gently persuading and cajoling the King’s opponents and allies to where they need to be. He has a mind for money – a past life as a trader gives him an edge over the fat and slow noblemen who rely on him. He has a logistical genius – he reorganises multiple royal bodies, bringing some order to Henry’s disorganised reign.
Now, undoubtedly Thomas Cromwell was a brilliant man. He would have to have been. But it still feels a little surreal reading it in the novel – there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of explanation, either where it came from, or how he worked to acquire it. That, perhaps, is reflected a little in the TV show, where Cromwell smiles enigmatically through every scene without ever really saying much – I see now that’s just being faithful to the book.
Another fascinating angle is Cromwell’s conflict with More. I’ve previously read and loved A man for all seasons. It’s a beautiful play. In that piece, More is very much the victim – the man of principle holding out against the world around him That’s not how Mantel tells it. In the novel, there is a very clear depiction of More’s violence – the people burnt, hung, and killed in other gruesome ways. That’s a crucial part of the background for the conflict that plays out between More and Cromwell. Cromwell is a friend of at least one of the religious figures (what we might now think of as early protestants, although that may not be the correct terminology) who is burnt alive, and witnesses another burning as a child. When he fights More, demanding a response, it’s personal – part of his frustration is that he refuses to use torture, giving More the option of silence, an option that More never gave to those he tortured.
But for all that, there’s something lurking in the background – which is that through the changes he helps bring about (granted, partially at the King’s behest), Cromwell himself also sets in train mass executions in horrific ways. A description of monks dying while their entrails are burned was particularly scarring. Given that, it’s hard to see how he can hold the moral high ground for very long.
So I think that’s an element that’s underplayed in Mantel’s telling. Granted, this is a man bringing about a change that increases British independence, and puts a British monarch ahead of a corrupt foreign church. But doing so involves a national oath of allegiance, and mass torture for those that won’t comply. This is the stuff dictatorial regimes are made of, and on reflection it’s hard not to feel that Mantel’s elided something crucial here, at least in her recounting of Cromwell’s character.
And after all that, this is ultimately a story about Cromwell, and at times it feels hard to realise what’s changed for him. He has, granted, moved from the opening scene where he is kicked, as a boy, on the floor of his father’s smithy, to a closing scene where he is one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, a commoner visited by the King and planning the King’s itinerary. He has struggled and overcome against a range of enemies – family, noblemen, and the rest. But it’s hard to know that it was much of a struggle for him; in Mantel’s telling he does it effortlessly, without changing an iota, and because of that it feels a little hard to care – almost preordained, rather than something attained through genuine struggle.
That would perhaps be one of my chief complaints. But for all that, it’s a well told piece, and a fun read – I recommend it if you’re in the mood for detailed historical fiction.