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26 February 2010

Confessions of an Unjustified Ignoramus: The Pleasures of WOLF HALL

If I could give it six or seven stars out of the allowable five, I'd do so, is what I recently wrote on Goodreads.com about this splendid historical novel that kept me reeling and squealing with pure reading pleasure last week while the rest of my life ground to a halt around it.

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?

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21 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for a wonderful post, Pam! I haven't read "Wolf Hall," but your post made me even more eager to do so. I first learned about Cromwell from the wonderful Keith Michell Henry VII series in the 70s. My family went to Britain shortly afterwards and I saw a lot of the places involved, so I very intrigued by Tudor and Elizabethan history. I was in "A Man for All Seasons" in college. I played the small part of a woman who's a witness against More at his trial. My best friend from college played Cromwell (and cross-examined me in the scene). I do like the play, though I think it oversimplifies both More and Cromwell. I majored in Early Modern English history in college and though my focus was the last fifteenth century, I spent a fair amount of time studying the Tudors.

Having just finished (or sort of finished, I have revisions to do) a book in which real people play more significant roles than in most of my prior books, I'm fascinated by and in awe of writers' abilities to get inside the heads of real historical figures.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Fascinating post, Pam. Thank you. I have read Wolf Hall, I loved it and as a writer I learned such a lot from it. The world that the author created was so vivid and dense and tangible that I want to live in it. I'm also fascinated as to how Hilary Mantel made Thomas Cromwell such an attractive character (to me at least!) Maybe it was something to do with the passage where Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, compares Cromwell to Wolsey and comments that Wolsey got his way through charm and persuasion, and that Cromwell tries the same methods but if that fails to open the door, he kicks it in! That combination of skill and force that one sees in Cromwell all the way through the book is pretty seductive. This was one of the best historical novels I have read in a very long time.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Pam, Ms. Mantel's publicist sent me WOLF HALL to review back in October and I wrote a review [http://royalaffairs.blogspot.com/2009/10/who-let-dogs-out-at-long-last-my-review.html]

as well as a mid-read pre-review [http://royalaffairs.blogspot.com/2009/10/coming-soon-my-review-of-wolf-hall.html] on my Royal Affairs blog.

I heartily concur with your assessment of this magnificent and remarkable novel!

12:31 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

So Tracy, you're coming to WOLF HALL from a place almost opposite to my ignorance -- probably I should check out A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS again (or more like the first time). Congrats on finishing and hugs on your revisions (I received a revision letter today, too, re a book review I did for the premier edition of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies... the editor says they're minor, but I think I'll wait to check out the specifics until... tomorrow)

Nicola, I so agree about Cromwell being attractive. Combination of skill and force is exactly right.

And Leslie, thanks for the links. I read and enjoyed one of those posts when it came out, but, of course, didn't check it out while I was writing my own take. Tho I might now that I've had my say. :-)

1:56 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Pam, I loved Wolf Hall and I loved reading your thoughts on it. It's a breathtaking novel and I too found that once I'd started it everything else faded into the background.

Here's one of my favorite passages (and there were many) that reminds me of the metaphysical poets in its treatment of space and time and the distillation of a perfect moment:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

What I found interesting was that in so many popular interpretations (most recently and hideously via "The Tudors" aka getting Jonathan Rhys Meyers and various babes naked), Cromwell is the bad guy, the one who was so mean to the nuns and monks, and Thomas More was the saint. That's certainly the way it was taught decades ago in English schools. Mantel makes him enormously attractive in his voraciousness (in a voracious age).

Thanks, Pam, for writing so beautifully about this wonderful book.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Pam. I've been jonesing for a good book after reeling from "The Reliable Wife"...I think Wolf Hall will be my fix. Off to get it tomorrow! Thanks for the compelling review!

10:01 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm sure you'll enjoy it, Kathrynn.

And Janet, thanks for the lovely quote. I remember pausing over it. Of course the thing that's so fascinating (and new to me) about Mantel's More is that she portrays him as an early Robespierre, hand ever at the ready to turn the screws of the rack himself, first in the fight against heresy. (HAer French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety is on my shelf -- and what a great title).

Whereas Cromwell is a pragmatist, a man of experience and craft. And a man who respects women -- his marriage doesn't start as a love match but it becomes so. I was looking in the text for what his wife Liz says to him after their first night together (do you remember?). I couldn't find it, but found this wonderful thing instead...

Lizzie wanted children; he wanted a wife with city contacts and some money behind her. They were married in weeks. Gregory arrived within the year. Bawling, strong, one hour old, plucked from the cradle: he kissed the infant's fluffy skull and said, I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me. For what's the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?

I wonder if there's any historical evidence for these deeply moving relationships.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Tink said...

I definitely plan to read it. My sister-in-law knows so much about the Tudor period that, frankly, she can go on and on and ON about it. (I'm a good sister, however, I will say no more and just get her the book!)

Thanks for the honest and intriguing discussion.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Read it, Tink, and then you and your sister can go on and on and on together.

And thanks for the kind words about the discussion.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I haven't read it, but I certainly shall. I have heard so many good things about it and am continually fascinated by that period in history.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Pam--here it is. I've had good luck picking bits out of this book:

He thinks of their wedding night; her trailing taffeta gown, her little wary gesture of hugging her elbows. Next day she said, "That's all right then."

And smiled. That's all she left him. Liz who never did say much.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oooh thanks. I love that.

And you'll love the book, Louisa.

7:02 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I haven't even heard of Wolf Hall, but it's certainly just made it onto my to buy list. I have to say, the title would have put me off had I seen this in a shop. I'd have assumed it was some kind of paranormal somethingorother and skipped right over it.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

And sadly the first thing I see after leaving this site is that the author of Wolf Hall thinks 14 year-olds are ready to be mothers and the only reason they don't have babies that young all the time is that society runs on a "male timetable".

Color me freaken gobsmacked.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

tell us a link for that, Kalen, won't you? (gobsmacked too)

1:33 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1254398/Booker-prize-winning-artist-claims-girls-ready-children-age-just-14.html

6:24 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

What a wonderful, extensive review. I have not yet read it, but it is on my must read list.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm sure you'll enjoy it, librarypat.

And thanks for the kind words. It was important for me to try to express my sense of what was going on in this book, because it seems to me that the historical fiction genre is deepening and broadening at an exciting, extraordinary pace -- perhaps because of some complicated, dimly apprehended sense of how very strange and unstable the history we're living through is.

And even if, as I sometimes think, "historical romance" is a kind of oxymoron, that same strangeness and instability might even reach to some distant corners of our genre...

But later for those questions. Right now, speaking of strange -- Mantel's remarks (qua Kalen's link) about 14-year-olds' readiness to be mothers goes is just plain weird, expecially in light of this strong and very reasonable excerpt from an interview with her last fall:

She is appalled by those who have forgotten what her generation, and her mother's generation, encountered. "very annoyingly, you get women nowadays who are educated and have got on in their professions, saying, 'Oh, but I'm not a feminist.'" Anger suffuses her face, an intensity almost indecent. "The only reason they can say that is that they're standing on the shoulders of their mothers, who fought these battles, I think for a woman to say 'I'm not a feminist' is [like] a lamb joining the slaughterer's guild. It's just empty-headed and stupid."

September 12, 2009 in the Guardian

8:24 AM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

Pam you make me want to get over my dislike of large hardback novels that don't fit in my purse. (There's a reason to buy an e-reader).

I always had a sneaking liking for Cromwell. In Catholic school More was the subject of great adulation, but the very pragmatic nun who taught me history couldn't quite disguise her admiration for the architect of the break with Rome. I guess I am going to have to succumb and develop my arm muscles.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

A new kind of backcover blurb, perhaps:

"A book to cherish... and to shlep everywhere."

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Susan Blexrud said...

Thanks for the great review. I've just discovered History Hoydens (thank you, Smart Bitches/Trashy Books), and I'll certainly be back. As a Tudor/Stuart devotee, it's rare to find a sympathetic account of Cromwell. Though most consider Thomas More saintly (not the least of which is the Catholic church), Sir Thomas sent many a "heretic" to be barbecued. I'm looking forward to reading Wolf Hall. The more I learn about Henry VIII, the more I realize that favor with the king ebbed and flowed with his whims. Had I lived in those times, I believe I'd have stayed away from court.

11:43 AM  

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