I’m sure the words “Brilliant!” and “Genius!” are bandied about quite a bit with regards to Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy “Wolf Hall”. And while this praise is apt, I would go once step further to say there are no words to describe Hilary Mantel’s novels. She’s that good. I’ve never read anyone like her. If I’ve been searching for a time travel machine all these years, I’m closer than ever with “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”.
Before I get into the second installment of her Thomas Cromwell series, let me take a moment and talk about the recent Masterpiece Theatre adaptation Wolf Hall, which covers the first and second novels (we are still waiting for the third to arrive in print). I’ve never been blown away by such a masterful (yep, I said it) piece of television. Not only did the series serve the books faithfully- sometimes pulling dialogue directly from the text- it was so wonderfully cast. Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell deserves heaps of awards. His eyebrows even deserve awards. It’s some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from Damien Lewis as Henry VIII, and I loved him in the show Life. And Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn is exquisite.
What the books and the TV mini-series do so well is that they put you right in the middle of Tudor England. Sure, the language is slightly different- some words no longer exist and some haven’t come into being- but the human behavior is timeless. Much of the historical fiction we read and watch seems to be rooted in some sort of idea we have about the past. Everyone makes grand gestures, declarative speeches, and is impeccably beautiful and cultured in our collective vision of historical figures. But these are still real people, even if they didn’t have electricity or running water. They are driven by the same human emotions and desires that motivates many of us today- greed, lust, power, etc.
Mantel seizes her audience by infusing her main character with a delicious sense of humor that is relatable to the modern day person. Mark Rylance in the show was able to skillfully translate much of Cromwell’s wry humor, as well. There is a great scene where the painter Hans Holbein is drawing a rough sketch of Cromwell that will become the most recognized portrait we have of Henry VIII’s Master Secretary. Holbein and Cromwell are joking around and Holbein, perhaps playing to Cromwell’s reputation of delivering secret justice to those he doesn’t like, says “Well, are you going to put me in chains?” Cromwell just gives him a helpless shrug of his shoulders and hmmpphh, as if to say “Well, duh! So sue me”. The gesture is almost anachronistic, but Rylance infuses it with a meaning we all recognize and it just FITS. You can almost see the real Cromwell, or anyone from the 16h Century, doing the same thing. Here is another example of Mantel’s rich writing style that fully captures the human and the humor and makes the 16th Century man come alive off the page:
Stephen Gardiner! Coming in as he’s going out, striding towards the king’s chamber, a folio under one arm, the other flailing the air. Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester: blowing up like a thunderstorm, when for once we have a fine day.
When Stephen comes into a room, the furnishings shrink from him. Chairs scuttle backwards. Joint-stools flatten themselves like pissing bitches. The woolen Bible figures in the king’s tapestries lift their hands to cover their ears.
There are too many details to explain here about the novel and what’s it about, but I will stress that it is not imperative that you are an expert on Tudor history in order to read it (though it does help). This installment covers the fall of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s role in it. Here, you get a sense of Cromwell’s rising influence and power and his internal struggle. As the son of a blacksmith who steadily rose to power in the king’s court, despite his lack of nobility, he’s uncomfortable (and secretly delighted) with his new status. Yet as the novel progresses, we begin to see Cromwell gently weave his own web of intrigue and revenge. It will trap in the end, but that’s for the next book. This story is a magnificent look at two masterminds- Cromwell and Anne- who both built each other up, though it’s Anne is torn down. Mantel’s Queen Anne is not the cold and undeserving schemer/harlot she’s often portrayed as in print and television. I invite you to listen to a back episode of Terri Gross’ podcast Fresh Air for her interview with Hilary Mantel, who goes into more depth about Queens during the Tudor Age.
The show Wolf Hall does a marvelous job of following both books to a tee, but there is one scene in particular from the novel that the show just doesn’t do justice. Cromwell has gone to visit the cast-aside former Queen Katherine of Aragon. She is dying. Her rage and agony is almost palpable. Cromwell knows this; perhaps he even sympathizes with her. But what is happening here is a battle of wits and things left unsaid. Katherine cannot say an unkind work or stray a treasonous thought about King Henry. So Mantel writes her scene as a “show not tell” portrait of two people who might be very bitter and regretful about what they’ve done or must do, but cannot reveal an inch of motive.
I see. Do you think a lot about the king’s death?
I think about his afterlife.
If you want to do his soul good, why do you continually obstruct him? it hardly makes him a better man…You, not he, split Christendom. And I expect that you know that, and that you think about it in the silence of the night.
There is a pause, while she turns the great pages of her volume of rage, and puts her finger on just the right word. ‘What you say, Cromwell, is…contemptible.
She’s right, he thinks. But I will keep tormenting her, revealing her to herself, stripping her of any illusions, and I will do it for her daughter’s sake…
A long look. ‘At least, as an enemy, you stand in plain sight’.
There is something so delightful about the repartee in this passage, and it goes on for a couple of pages. They almost respect each other in the end. But Katherine is no slouch. She’s onto Cromwell, just as he knows she’s not an innocent victim in all this. Mantel’s character development and depth is so outstanding here, I had to read each page twice.
The book slows down near the end and some of the investigation into Anne’s lovers drags on a little too long. Minor complaints, however, that the show dispenses with in swift fashion by speeding through the trial proceedings and almost coming to a near halt at Anne’s execution, which is the right thing to do. As with the book, both devices capture and illustrate the pure terror and hopelessness she feels, along with the near downright kindness from her executioner. I shuddered while reading it and cried while watching it. I don’t think TV’s ever handled a beheading so well.
I highly encourage anyone to pick up the Wolf Hall series. Hilary Mantel has won two Man Booker prizes in a row for her books. And while I’m not a believer that a literary prize always equals a first rate novel, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies” come damn close.