Wolf Hall is the first instalment in Hilary Mantel’s as-yet unfinished trilogy dealing with the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court. It takes us through his time as Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man, through to his time serving the king himself. Its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, sees Cromwell rise even further – to the height of his power in the king’s court.
Subjects of vast historical importance swirl around in the background of both books – William Tyndale’s translated Bible circulates throughout Europe; the Anabaptists of Münster take the city and found their New Jerusalem; Henry Tudor breaks away from Rome. But while the novels are concerned with these world-changing events, this is Cromwell’s story – not merely a history lesson on early modern Europe.
And this is very much Cromwell’s story. It’s not the story of Henry VIII, or Katherine of Aragon, or the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of the Seymours. It’s the story of Thomas Cromwell. Not just Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to the King, Master of the Rolls, and Vicegerent of the King in Spirituals, but Thomas Cromwell the man.
Wolf Hall begins in Cromwell’s later childhood, and then jumps forward decades to his service under Cardinal Wolsey. But the short time we spent with childhood Cromwell is vital in framing the way we see him throughout the rest of the novels. And his time as Wolsey’s right-hand man – while not as historically important as his service under the king – has a similar impact on the way we see him.
These early sections frame Cromwell as human; as a violently abused child, as a protégé and friend of a great man he deeply admires, and as a husband and father made distant by work, but capable of unsteady displays of affection. And this framing of his character is vital precisely because it contrasts the later parts of the story so significantly.
As he rises in the king’s favour, we see a Cromwell increasingly capable of performing ruthless acts to please the crown and secure his own influence. And without the early sections of Thomas Cromwell the man we’d likely see the later Thomas Cromwell as either a monster, or an automaton devoid of all human feeling.
But when we read through, for instance, his heartless, calculating interrogation of Thomas More it’s framed by what we know of Cromwell the man. The suffering of his childhoood. The day when his wife died of fever, and the days later when his two daughters followed. We remember, following these deaths, moments like this:
“Now he stands in a window embrasure, Liz’s prayer book in hand. His daughter Grace liked to look at it, and today he can feel the imprint of her small fingers under his own.”
These moments of touching, sometimes unbearable humanity stay with us and keep the later Cromwell human. They don’t justify his actions, or absolve his character – they’re not designed to. They’re not about making him a relatable protagonist – by and large he isn’t one, though anyone with an overworked, overtired, overly-distant father will likely see much they recognise. Instead they serve to re-frame everything that happens within the context of one man’s life.
But, perhaps most interestingly, while these instances serve to keep us in mind of Cromwell’s humanity, they don’t serve to give us any real insight into him. His actual thoughts and feelings remain closed off to us for all but the most fleeting of moments. In my mind, the most important line from the entire series so far comes from one of these rare insights into Cromwell’s thoughts, at a less-than pivotal moment towards the end of Wolf Hall:
‘I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?’
If even Thomas Cromwell can’t see into the mind of Thomas Cromwell what hope do we, the readers, have? The early sections of Wolf Hall allow us to see the events that formed him, but only rarely do they give us any kind of access to him – to what he thinks and feels. And as the novels progress these few moments of access become rarer and rarer, so that as Cromwell’s convictions and motives are pulled steadily, almost imperceptibly away from us, he too finds his interiority increasingly remote – How can that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?
So we’re left to form our own interpretations of his character, and place our own reasons for his actions: To what extent are his assaults on the Catholic Church in England motivated by belief in the Christian god as described by Tyndale and the reformers, rather than just a desire to redistribute Catholic lands and wealth to benefit his friends, the king, and himself? And later: does any part of him believe that Anne Boleyn is guilty of the crimes he accuses her of? Possibly? Probably not? Even he seems to have conflicting moments on this – and we’re, as always, left to guess.
The lack of insight into Cromwell’s interiority leaves us with no authority on these, and other, matters. So we speculate. And we create our own interpretation of Cromwell, spurred on only by the humanity we saw in his past, and the increasingly rare moments of introspection we’re allowed to witness.
Cromwell remains a fascinating, compelling, unceasingly human character throughout the books, despite the fact that his workings are hidden from us almost the whole way through. And that, even more so than the deft, complex portrayal of courtly affairs in sixteenth century Europe, is the reason Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are both such capital g Great works of fiction.
Hilary Mantel’s final novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is set for publication in 2015. If you know your history better than me you may know where it’s heading. Either way, if you haven’t read the previous two novels in the series I can’t recommend them enough. They’re incredibly dense, and until they dig their claws into you they’re hard work – there are so many characters, and so many of them are called Thomas – but once those claws are in they’re unlikely to come out in a hurry.