Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is one of those great historical novels which you come to reluctantly and finish breathlessly--I say reluctantly because, in this day and age, the vast majority of long, "meticulously researched" historical narratives are obviously over-hyped--and breathlessly, because Hilary Mantel's genius for dramatic storytelling becomes clear very early on: gripping you, rocking you, refusing to let you go, ravishing all your preconceptions and misconceptions."Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm. Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it."
She has confessed, in many an interview, to wanting to achieve precisely that effect: for readers to wipe out their pre-established view of Cromwell as a kind of Machiavellian villain, a pantomime baddie, dark, cold-blooded and ruthless. The portrait of Cromwell that she gives in Wolf Hall is anything but sentimental, however, and therein lies the book's great success. There are times, mostly in the beginning of the narrative, when Cromwell comes across as a blameless victim of circumstance; there are other times when he comes to inhabit his role of Henry's "evil councilor" absolutely.
The book's ultimate greatness is concealed, rather cleverly, in the simple fact that, after all is said and done it is not a historical novel at all--though it has all the commonly employed techniques and cliches of one--but rather a drama of human life, of many human lives, taking place in and throughout history.
No character in Wolf Hall is ultimately one-dimensional--even the most disgusting individuals, the filthiest, most ruthless schemers, have rich inner lives: Cromwell, Henry, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon, and the various dukes, courtiers and hangers-on that surround them. "There are some people in this world," Mantel writes, "who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins." Much of her fiction in general (and Wolf Hall in particular) embodies the latter of these two qualities: Mantel never allows even the most episodic of characters to come across as "squared up and precise" but rather as margin-less, bottomless, unfathomable.
What stands out, perceptibly, about Wolf Hall that the other Booker nominees this year lack (I have only read two so far in their entirety, but I browsed at random through all of them) is the language. It is no small miracle that in a novel of more than five hundred pages there is something to catch your eye almost on every page:
He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.
A wash of sunlight lies over the river, pale as the flesh of a lemon.
Standing in a wash of chary autumn sun, he holds an apple in his hand. He pares it with a thin blade, and the peel whispers away from the flesh and lies among his papers, like the shadow of an apple, green on white paper and black ink.
And early on in the novel, finishing up the day's work and looking up at his wife's half-shadowed face, Cromwell experiences a small epiphany: "At first, there is no sound. Then the timbers creak, breathe. In the chimneys, nesting birds shuffle. A breeze blows from the river, faintly shivering the tops of trees. They hear the sleeping breath of children, imagined from other rooms. 'Come to bed,' he says. The king can't say that to his wife. Or, with any good effect, to the woman they say he loves."
At Anne's coronation (she walking proudly in scarlet mantles, in her last months of pregnancy, her head erect, her forehead beaded with sweat), Cromwell, not doubting for one moment the sex of the royal unborn, falls to his knees and prays: "This child, his half-formed heart now beating against the stone floor [Anne has prostrated herself before the archbishop to receive his blessing], let him be sanctified by this moment, and let him be like his father's father, like his Tudor uncles; let him be hard, alert, watchful of opportunity, wringing use from the smallest turn of fortune."
The book's most miraculous passage, for me (and believe me, there are many) is the description of Anne's (and with her, every other woman's, indeed any woman's) experience of childbirth:
Henry, eagerly anticipating the birth of a male heir, organizes a tournament. Upon being told that he has, now, a daughter, he blurts out (in what has to be one of the most cosmically ironic moments in the entire book--to us, that is, who "know" history): "Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the jousts."When a woman withdraws to give birth the sun may be shining but the shutters of her room are closed so she can make her own weather. She is kept in the dark so she can dream. Her dreams drift her far away, from terra firma to a marshy tract of land, to a landing stage, to a river where a mist closes over the farther bank, and earth and sky are inseparate; there she must embark toward life and death, a muffled figure in the stern directing the oars. In this vessel prayers are said that men never hear. Bargains are struck between a woman and her God. The river is tidal, and between one feather-stroke and the next, her tide may turn.
On August 26, 1533, a procession escorts the queen to her sealed rooms at Greenwich. Her husband kisses her, adieu and bon voyage, and she neither smiles nor speaks. She is very pale, very grand, a tiny jeweled head balanced on the swaying tent of her body, her steps small and circumspect, a prayer book in her hands. On the quay she turns her head: one lingering glance. She sees him; she sees the archbishop. One last look and then, her women steadying her elbows, she puts her foot into the boat.
Cromwell, the hero (both the book's and the king's), stands perfectly still and watches silently. Having broken the Catholic Church in England and all it represents, he stands to lose if Anne does not give Henry a princeling (and she won't, now or ever).
Still, however, he resolves not to despair: "You have made your choice. You must never repent it."
He thinks of his dead wife and of his two young daughters, snatched up by the plague: "Love never falleth away."