“This morning Anne wears a crucifix on a gold chain. Sometimes her fingers pull at it impatiently, and then she tucks her hands back in her sleeves. It is so much a habit with her that people say she has something to hide, a deformity; but he thinks she is a woman doesn’t like to show her hand.”
The story is familiar, at least to anyone who paid a bit of attention in grade school history. Henry VIII sits on the throne of England and decides that it is time to cast off Katherine of Aragon, his wife of twenty years, for the English courtier Anne Boleyn. This is a monstrous, momentous decision that will lead many people to their graves as the country divides over its religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome. This is not modern America; Henry is not far removed from being a despot and, despite his Parliament, the people he decides need to go have a tendency to lose their heads. What we learn again and again in Wolf Hall is the dangerous nature of power — Henry burns bright, but getting too close to him is a dangerous game.
Mantel tells us this story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, one of the sharpest minds around Henry. He begins as a servant of Cardinal Wosley, who is the first to fall from power for not giving Henry and Anne a papal annulment for Henry’s first marriage. Yet, miraculously, as Wosley falls, Cromwell rises. As the son of a brewer, his political success seems nearly impossible. He is surrounded by aristocrats with titles going back a thousand years, but Cromwell rises on his merit. A polyglot, lawyer and rich wool merchant, we watch Cromwell use his diplomatic skills to rise to become the right hand of the king.
There is a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.
Cromwell is a remarkable and powerful character. The brilliance of Wolf Hall is Mantel’s ability to slip inside a powerful brain and portray it convincingly. We are blinded by Cromwell’s quick thinking and cunning. He has the ability to be ruthless, but we see that he is not ruthless by nature — while, like his King, he enjoys a good adversary, we see his compassion, even to those who would not do him the same kindness. One of the long-running adversarial relationships in the novel is Cromwell and Thomas More, Henry VIII’s former tutor and Lord Chancellor. Mantel’s portrayal of More is not kind, but it is honest. We watch More’s rise and fall, knowing that Cromwell will follow. Perhaps it is this knowledge of his own fate that drives Cromwell to extraordinary lengths to try to save More from himself, but it also makes us love Cromwell for his adherence to his humanist principles.
Henry takes off his embroidered cap, throws it down, runs his hands through his hair. Like Wyatt’s golden mane, his hair is thinning, and it exposes the shape of his massive skull. For a moment he seems like a carved statue, like a simpler form of himself, or one of his own ancestors; one of the race of giants that roamed Britain, and left no trace of themselves except in the dreams of their petty descendants.
Portraying well-known figures such as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn presents a special challenge for any writer — feelings run high about them. It would be easy to villainize Henry, who casts off his first wife, beheads two more and sends yet another to a nunnery. Or, perhaps, to look at and judge him for the religious mayhem that he caused, which sent both Protestants and Catholics to the stake. Although often credited with bringing Protestantism to England because of his break with the authority of the Pope, Henry was a Catholic conservative who blocked the religious reformation that figures close to him, like Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, risked their lives for. Mantel holds him to account for these moral crimes, but she also shows us a king that is often generous, passionate and fair. Cromwell respects him, as one fox might respect another. We find ourselves wondering if maybe there’s something more to this wife-slaying autocrat that our grade school history textbooks led us to believe.
Likewise, Mantel removes the romanticism of Anne Boleyn, giving us a fascinating portrait of the woman who played such a pivotal role in English history. Anne is not beautiful, but she is sharp and vicious, with an understanding of the game being played that Cromwell can’t help but respect. Like Cromwell, the Boleyns are courtiers without a pedigree, but Anne’s relationship with Henry raises her from being the niece of the Howards to a Marquess in her own right and then, briefly, a Queen. Anne has not yet fallen from power by the end of Wolf Hall, but the writing is on the wall. Her crime is the same as Wolsley’s — she failed to give the king what he wanted most, so she is sacrificed as well. Cromwell leads us through it, pointing us at Henry’s next moves before Henry knows them himself.
Often darkly funny, dry and witty, Mantel’s telling of Henry VIII’s court is well worth the read. She brings the story to life, while entertaining us with an invitation to step into the shoes of brilliant and extraordinary man. We grieve with him and celebrate with him and wonder, at the end of this 650 page journey, why the book has come to an end. Luckily for us, Wolf Hall is just the first in a trilogy and the second novel, Bring Up the Bodies, came out in 2012.