Thursday, October 01, 2009

The life and times of Thomas Cromwell

Tudor England has always made for great yarns. The mix of lustiness and unpredictability about the reign of Henry VIII has inspired countless artists to make the period their muse. Over the centuries, plays, novels and paintings have tried to evoke the ineffable spirit of the age. What is it that drives this fascination with the Tudors? Is it an instinct to capture the thirst for power that characterized the period, or is it something deeper — a search for the very roots of modern English life?

Hillary Mantel, who has tackled subjects as diverse as the French Revolution in "A Place of Greater Safety" (1995) to her own dysfunctional past in "Giving Up the Ghost" (2003), is an ideal choice for a project of such breathtaking scale. Henry VIII's was a quicksilver monarchy, underscored by the fact of his six wives in rather quick succession. Henry is routinely portrayed as the lascivious royal who, in his quest to get a male heir, went to war with the pope — a definitive break that led to the separation of the English Church from Rome.

Setting out to capture the nub of this era, Ms. Mantel has done something outstanding — she has achieved a genuine voice for the time. And that voice tells us the life of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's boy who grew up to become Henry's chief minister. Born into humble and violent beginnings (in the book's first scene, a young Thomas is beaten to a pulp by his drunk father), Cromwell came to rule England by proxy, such was his power.

Ms. Mantel shifts her narration back and forth in time, so that we never learn the correct chronology of events, and this may create problems for a reader who is not in the know. Henry divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she was unable to give him a male heir. He then married one Anne Boleyn, who was also incapable of fulfilling that particular wish. Henry would go on to marry four more times.

Irrespective of the need to know this background to appreciate "Wolf Hall," the story of Cromwell's rise shimmers in Ms. Mantel's spry, intelligent prose. By the book's second scene, for instance, Cromwell has morphed from the gangly abused youngster to the slick lawyer for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's confidant who later fell out with him over his failure to get Henry's marriage to Catherine annulled. The relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey is that of hunter and prey. Initially a leonine figure wielding absolute power, Wolsey loses everything, including his life, to Cromwell, who uses the opportunity to endear himself to Henry.

It is in capturing such twists and turns of fate — so common to the Tudors — that Ms. Mantel shines. She leaches out the bones of the story as it is traditionally known, and presents to us a phantasmagoric extravaganza of the characters' plans and ploys, toils and tactics. There is rich dialogue here, removed from its datedness and assigned a very contemporary charge.

Beyond this, however, there is also a certain aim to Ms. Mantel's art. Regardless of the reasons behind the drift, Ms. Mantel is, and makes her reader be, appreciative of the English break from papal authority. England under Henry VIII is grateful for finally having its own church and being allowed to read the Bible in English. And by keeping Cromwell at the center of the drama, Ms. Mantel celebrates the intelligence and generosity of spirit too often denied Cromwell (most notably in Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons").

Such is the vastness of Ms. Mantel's project that there is the fear at some points that she will not be able to pull it off. The novel, after flitting from one mise en scène to the next, abruptly closes on Cromwell planning a trip to Wolf Hall to arrange an alliance between Henry and Jane Seymour, his third wife who will finally yield the dynasty a male heir — Edward VI. Is Ms. Mantel pointing us to a possible sequel?

Be that as it may, the crackling energy of her narration, the eternal spark of her subject, and her assiduous determination to rescue the reputation of Thomas Cromwell — all these make "Wolf Hall" quite perfect an enterprise by itself.


This review appeared in Washington Times. "Wolf Hall" has been shortlisted for this year's Booker. Read more about the Booker Prize by clicking on the "Booker" tag below this post.


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Anastasia said...

Hi Vikram. Thanks for this fine review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I caught it in the Wash Times. I'm a big fan of hers too. Last spring, she very generously agreed to read my upcoming second novel, SMALL KINGDOMS, in manuscript form--all four pounds of it, and then she sent me a wonderful early endorsement for the review copy of my book. I think you'll be interested in my book too. It's set in the Middle East, and one of its main characters is a young Indian housemaid from Goa. Please take a look at my website:, and if you're interested in receiving a galley, contact my publisher, The Permanent Press, via its managing editor: Thanks for all your reviewing. You and I have similar sensibilities.
Anastasia Hobbet

Vikram Johri said...

Hi Anastasia, thank you for your comment. Yes, I will be glad to look at your book. You can ask the Permanent Press to get in touch with me at best, vikram