What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?

(4,897 words. Link to printable version.) 

The most natural way to interpret fictional narration is as a direct communication from the author. We understand full well that the characters and events being described are fabricated, more or less whole-cloth, for the purpose of entertaining us. Yet we trust the author to relate all the details of the story, as she’s conceived of it, in a straightforward and accurate manner. If the rhythm and diction of the prose achieve a pleasing balance of artful evocation and easy comprehension, we ascribe the gracefulness to the author herself, and often feel a sense of gratitude that predisposes us to look favorably upon the prospect of reading other works in her oeuvre. This inclination to hear the author’s voice in fictional narration serves us well enough when we’re reading commercial fiction. As we move closer to the literary end of the spectrum, though, we must assimilate a more sophisticated linguistic convention. Only by grasping this technique can we fully experience the fruits of the author’s imaginative efforts and fully appreciate the depth of her psychological insights into the dynamic workings of her characters’ minds.

Everything a work of literary fiction is supposed to do, Hilary Mantel does masterfully in her historical novel Wolf Hall, including the creation of scenes so vividly immersive and the construction of plots so arresting that you all but forget you’re reading a work of fiction at all. Critics unanimously celebrate the way Mantel makes settled history feel ominously immediate. But the effect goes well beyond the abundance of intricately imagined details in her scenes. What distinguishes most historical writing from most narrative writing—and most nonfiction from most fiction more generally—is the move from summary to simulation. As if to illustrate this distinction, Mantel at a critical juncture in the plot makes use of a style closer to factual history, writing, 
On November 1, 1530, a commission for the cardinal’s arrest is given to Harry Percy, the young Earl of Northumberland. The earl arrives at Cawood to arrest him, forty-eight hours before his planned arrival in York for his investiture. He is taken to Pontefract Castle under guard, from there to Doncaster, and from there to Sheffield Park, the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Here at Talbot’s house he falls ill. On November 26 the constable of the Tower arrives, with twenty-four men at arms, to escort him south. From there he travels to Leicester Abbey. Three days later he dies.
What was England, before Wolsey? A little offshore island, poor and cold. (240)

This passage refers to the death of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose official crime was to assert a foreign ruler’s dominion in England, even though we know his real offense was his failure to procure for King Henry VIII the pope’s blessing for the annulment of his first marriage. The facts provide a clear enough record. But the final sentiment may seem out of place in its context. Who is it, we may wonder, giving the cardinal all this credit for the glory of Albion?

            After a section break, Mantel returns to her scene-making mode to show us how Thomas Cromwell, the cardinal’s erstwhile protégé and “man of business,” takes the news from George Cavendish, the gentleman usher who has been attending Wolsey since his fall from the king’s favor. The shift between the sections, of course, isn’t intended to highlight the differences in writing styles, but it does offer an opportunity to explore the author’s general approach to the story. She writes,

George Cavendish comes to Austin Friars. He cries as he talks. Sometimes he dries his tears and moralizes. But mostly he cries. “We had not even finished our dinner,” he says. “My lord was taking his dessert when young Harry Percy walked in. He was spattered with mud from the road, and he had the keys in his hands, he had taken them from the porter already, and set sentries on the stairs. My lord rose to his feet, he said, Harry, if I’d known, I’d have waited dinner for you. I fear we’ve almost finished the fish. Shall I pray for a miracle?
“I whispered to him, my lord, do not blaspheme. Then Harry Percy came forward: my lord, I arrest you for high treason.”
Cavendish waits. He waits for him to erupt in fury? But he puts his fingers together, joined as if he were praying. He thinks, Anne arranged this, and it must have given her an intense and secret pleasure; vengeance deferred, for herself, for her old lover, once berated by the cardinal and sent packing from the court. (240)

The narration slows the pace of storytelling to encourage us to imagine the events and the dialogue occurring in close to real time—we get a taste of this effect even within Cavendish’s own report. In place of dates and locations, we see mud-spattered coats and hear the jangle of keys. This effect is the most basic element of narrative prose. But Mantel is doing something far more subtle here than merely relaying details to portray scenes. Who, for instance, is posing that question in the last paragraph about what Cavendish is waiting for? Shouldn’t Mantel already know the answer?
Hilary Mantel

             This passage shows in microcosm the narrational game underlying the entire novel. Mantel is not simply displaying her characters and their surroundings as if from an outside observer’s perspective, the way an attendee of a theatrical performance would describe them. Rather, she’s imagining her way into Cromwell’s own mind, making his perceptions and his thoughts the focal point of not only the individual scenes but the story as a whole. Wolf Hall isn’t a novel about Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent remarriage to Anne Boleyn; it’s a novel about Thomas Cromwell, the role he plays behind the scenes of these historical events, and, most compellingly, the materially exalting but psychologically devastating impact the playing of such a role has on him. This is the key to understanding those questions about what England was before the cardinal and what Cavendish is waiting for. We are not to attribute these thoughts to Mantel but to her protagonist, the man whose consciousness her narration is inviting us to share. And this sharing of the character’s experiences, the blending of our thoughts with his, is one of the pleasures unique to written stories, one that can make reading more exquisitely engrossing than any other way of experiencing a narrative. 

            Authors customarily use this narrational technique, known as free indirect style—as opposed to simple first person narration—because in addition to allowing them to occupy the mind of the main character it also affords them the freedom to draw back and describe that same character in a way he wouldn’t have cause to describe himself. So we can learn about things like facial expressions, vocal tonalities, or unconscious gestures. Or we may simply learn about habits or aspects of the character’s appearance he takes for granted and hence would be unlikely to contemplate. Early in Wolf Hall, we learn about the man at the heart of the story from a more straightforward third person perspective.

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt—ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and spends it. He will take a bet on anything. (29)

The line about how Cromwell can fix a jury, treated as an almost innocuous afterthought here but foreshadowing an important event later in the novel, is typical of Mantel’s coyness, a subtle tactic to unsettle the settled, as if she were saying, “Think you know the story?—well, here it hasn’t happened yet.” (The title, referring to the home of the queen who succeeds Anne, is another of these coy gestures toward yet to occur future history.) But the passage as a whole is actually anomalous, as Mantel hews quite closely to Cromwell’s thoughts throughout the novel, representing unedited and unburnished the mental meanderings of a mind disciplined in the art of diplomatic withholding. Her use of free indirect style is in fact exceptional in how reliably it issues from her character’s perspective, and, though many readers got tripped up by seemingly ambiguous pronouns, this intense engagement with Cromwell is one of the reasons Wolf Hall is so thoroughly absorbing, and so profoundly moving. 

Cromwell and Wolsey from the RSC production
            The effect of Mantel’s uncannily close indirect narration is to make us feel like we’re moving behind the scenes of a mind belonging to a man who himself is privy to all the goings on behind the scenes of some of the most powerful people in the world at an important turning point in history. Wolf Hall succeeds on many levels, but it is most of all a masterwork of characterization. It is Mantel’s vivid and thoroughly wrought characters, Cromwell foremost among them, who bring the scenes to life. It is their competing ambitions and commingling prejudices—as perceived by Cromwell’s witheringly attentive eye—that ratchet up the stakes of even seemingly trivial encounters, creating both the novel’s pervasive air of menace and the volatile tension fueling its dark humor. In the scene where Cavendish recounts the cardinal’s final days, we get a glimpse of how Mantel integrates characterization into the unfolding of the plot. By this point in the novel, we know Wolsey would make just such a joke about the fish, we know Cavendish would object to it in just the way he does, and we know he’s aware of Cromwell’s predilection for dialogue quoted verbatim—all of this works to make us feel the full brunt of the scene’s plausibility, to experience it, unquestioningly, as real.

            Cromwell silently scoffs at the idea that he may erupt into fury, and if we were in Cavendish’s shoes we my come away with a view of Cromwell in keeping with the image of him passed down in hagiographic accounts of the life of Thomas More: a cold, calculating, and opportunistic yes-man about court—though Cavendish himself has good reason to be suspicious of Cromwell’s cold exterior, having once come across him crying over his dead wife’s prayer book. By the time Cavendish arrives with the news about Wolsey’s death, we too have had plenty of chances to see what’s really going on beneath the surface. We get another chance later in the scene, as Cavendish continues his account of the cardinal’s arrest:

“When they took him from the house, the townspeople were assembled outside. They knelt in the road and wept. They asked God to send vengeance on Harry Percy.”
God need not trouble, he thinks: I shall take it in hand. (241)

Some critics see Wolf Hall as an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the historical Cromwell. What’s more likely is that Mantel simply recognized the opportunity he represented for her to develop a provocative character, a figure she could flesh out as a man whose reputation and disciplined comportment are at odds with an inner life far richer, and far more decent, than even most of his closest associates ever fully realize. But, before she could adequately convey this pulsing tension between Cromwell’s public image and his hidden soul, Mantel first had to invent the unique version of close narration we’re introduced to in the earliest pages.

            Wolf Hall garnered critical accolades galore for the liveliness of the characters and the verisimilitude of the scenes. But I’ve yet to come across any mention even of what seems to me the novel’s most soaring achievement. Though plenty of the reviews give a sense of Cromwell as a canny observer whose background and talents make him interesting in his own right, a man whose perspective lends new texture and a hint of color to the worn and faded events he hovers around the margins of, none of them ever touches on the moral and emotional stakes of the dilemmas he faces. But Cromwell is no passive observer, no static presence. That ingeniously represented tension at the core of Cromwell’s character never reaches any sort of stable equilibrium. From the opening pages when we see him as a young boy being ruthlessly beaten by his drunk and low-born father, to his first days in the service of the cardinal, right up until the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the execution of Thomas More for refusing to sanction it, we see a man driven by ambition, loyalty, revenge, and love, one who rises from lowly origins to the highest eminence, only to find himself forced to subvert his human decency to satisfy his murderously capricious king’s all-consuming passion. All these changes in his circumstances, and all these changes in the fates of those around him, many of which he has a hand in bringing about, work to change him in return, so it’s never sufficient to ask, who is Cromwell?—we’re always wondering too, what is he becoming? In other words, Cromwell’s is a soul in peril.

            His response early in the novel to hearing that his wife Liz has died makes for one of the most devastating lines in all of literature. “I suppose, he says, she will want to be buried with her first husband… Because I came more lately” (95). Thanks in large part to the nuanced revelations made possible through Mantel’s innovative narration, we already understand him well enough by this point to know that this is exactly how he would respond: pragmatic, self-effacing, doggedly restrained. And knowing all this about him transforms the line from an off-hand, seemingly heartless comment into something expressive of the bottomless heartbreak he’s standing on the brink of. And we’re standing right there with him. Mantel’s trick is to imply depths to her character’s feelings that he himself doesn’t acknowledge, and this at times throughout the novel only makes us experience them more intensely on his behalf—a sort of amplification through muting.

            With Mantel’s narration, we at times have to tolerate some slight disorientation, reading over pronouns whose antecedents won’t announce themselves until we’ve read the next few lines. Balancing this minor exertion, however, is the invariably short distance our eyes must travel to reach one or another form of punctuation signaling the end of a phrase. In another writer’s hands, this could make the pace feel clipped or stilted. But Mantel’s intimate involvement with her characters and her scenes allows her to make each clause emerge naturally from its predecessors, even while anticipating its successors, to create an effect that mimics simultaneity. Each line flows along like a flotilla of tiny treasure-laden ships, delivering images and meanings at the pace of precisely measured thought. This effect, too, is inseparably intertwined with the characterization. In the scene when Cromwell is sworn in as a member of the king’s council, Thomas More arrives in tears because his father has died the night before. Cromwell attempts to comfort him:  

“You know, after Elizabeth died, my wife…” And then, he wants to say, my daughters, my sister, my household decimated, my people never out of black, and now my cardinal lost… But he will not admit, for even a moment, that sorrow has sapped his will. You cannot get another father, but he would hardly want to; as for wives, they are two-a-penny with Thomas More. “You do not believe it now, but feeling will come back. For the world and all you must do in it.” (259)

We see here a hint of how complicated Cromwell’s feelings are about More, a man he grudgingly admires, one whose scholarship and literally self-flagellating devoutness, along with his casual misogyny and murderous conviction, inspires in him a mixture of wariness, disgust, and strenuously disavowed awe. We also see evidence of the layered meanings occupying the medium of Cromwell’s mind. He’s not only a man whose words are often at odds with his thoughts, but one whose thoughts are frequently at odds with his feelings (“I have got over Liz, he says to himself. Surely?” [463]), as though he’s trying—with a modicum of success—to manage his emotions by directing his thoughts. 

And this is the key to deciphering that initial passage about Cardinal Wolsey’s demise, because we know Cromwell would seek to reduce this overwhelmingly tragic news to its stark factuality. We know, too, that one of the most painful things about what’s happened is that he wasn’t there when his friend died—even though Wolsey had expressed his desire that he be there with him at the end. When Cavendish happened upon Cromwell in tears early in the novel, he doesn’t know it’s Liz’s prayer book in his hands. “I am going to lose everything,” is how Cromwell explains his tears, “everything I have worked for, all my life, because I will go down with the cardinal” (144). But, as he goes to court more frequently to plead Wolsey’s case, something unexpected happens: the king and his would-be queen recognize his talents and gradually end up recruiting him to their cause. In one of the scenes leading up to the cardinal’s death, Cromwell uncharacteristically lets his guard down and confides in a scholar and cleric named Thomas Cranmer—after discovering he too is a widower—about his concerns regarding Wolsey:

He has a wish to speak, to express the bottled rage and pain he feels. He says, “People have worked to make misunderstandings between us. To persuade the cardinal that I am no longer working for his interests, only for my own, that I have been bought out, that I see Anne every day—”
                   “Of course, you do see her…”
         “How else can I know how to move next? My lord cannot know, he cannot understand, what it’s like to be here now.”
         Cranmer says gently, “Should you not go to him? Your presence would dispel any doubt.”
                 “There is no time. The snare is set for him and I dare not move.” (232)

Indeed, Cromwell has overheard his own protégé Rafe Sadler saying to his nephew, “Look, there was no profit for him, ever, in deserting the old man—what would he get but the name of deserter? Perhaps something is to be got by sticking fast. For all of us” (198). The nephew, Richard, doesn’t believe his uncle’s loyalty to the cardinal is a mere ploy, but there’s no denying by this point that Cromwell’s fate is no longer tied to Wolsey’s.
Cromwell and Henry from the BBC series

            Mantel’s image of Cromwell as both intimidatingly savvy and startlingly versatile in his competences seems to have conspired with the traditional view of him as a coldblooded opportunist to make it difficult for some readers to see him as anything other than a Machiavellian mastermind. But, while he’s certainly no victim of circumstance, Mantel shows clearly throughout Wolf Hall that he’s as driven by necessity as he is by his own prescient and strategic calculations. As cool as he plays his myriad roles, Cromwell often has no idea what he’s getting himself into. From one of his earliest encounters with the cardinal—when he reflexively, and quite conspicuously, draws away from an imaginary blow (“I really would like the London gossip,” Wolsey says. “But I wasn’t planning to beat it out of you” [66])—to his first days at court, he’s frequently far from certain where he stands with the powerful men he’s surrounded by. After an attempt to convince Queen Katherine to relocate to Hertfordshire by suggesting that if she doesn’t go quietly she may be separated from her daughter, Princess Mary, Cromwell explains his position to his protégés. (First, he pretends he already knew Katherine and Mary were to be separated anyway when informed of it by one of his men.)

Rafe says, “It is harsh. To use the little girl against her mother.”
“Harsh, yes…but the question is, have you picked your prince? Because that is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him—yes, that is possible, yes, that can be done.”

Cromwell feels he’s chosen a prince—though in fact a prince has chosen him—far less ruthless than others he knows of. When his son Gregory, wondering just how far he would go with his yeses, asks, “You would not work her death, would you?” (270), Cromwell tries to reassure him:

“I said, you give way to the king’s requests. You open the way to his desires. That is what a courtier does. Now, understand this: it is impossible that Henry should require me or any other person to harm the queen. What is he, a monster?” (271)

Here again Mantel is playing her devious game with future history, since we know Anne will be only the second of Henry’s six wives—and the first of two who are beheaded. But, once Cromwell has chosen his prince, there’s no turning back for him.

Cromwell and Anne Boleyn from BBC series
            Unsurprisingly, Cromwell’s campaign to give the king what he wants meets with success, but that leads to a further complication. Thomas More, until recently a high church official, refuses to swear an oath in support of an act declaring Henry head of the church in England and free to marry Anne Boleyn. And so Thomas Cromwell has no choice but to say yes to his king’s command to either persuade More to reconsider or, failing that, find grounds to convict him of treason, so that he can be executed. More, as we knew he would, prefers martyrdom to the prospect of undermining his life’s work on behalf of the Catholic faith. The closing chapters of Wolf Hall have Cromwell struggling against both his conscience and More’s refusal to make any damning statements that would secure his conviction. The final scenes between the two men expose each of them down to the last raw nerve of their souls as they wade through the moral complexity of their predicament, weighed down by the undeniable futility of their efforts. “Will you think me sentimental, if I say I do not want to see you butchered?” (588) Cromwell asks at one point. Later he says, “I would have left you, you know. To live out your life. To repent your butcheries. If I were king” (590). As for the actual king, Cromwell has already tried to get him to allow More to live on in silence, since getting a jury—even the one he’s fixed—to convict him of treason won’t be easy. The king is incensed.

Henry stirs to life. “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.” He drops his voice. “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.” (585)

In other words, find a way to execute Thomas More. Now there can no longer be any question in Cromwell’s mind of where he stands with the king, or of what kind of prince he has chosen.

            You can read Wolf Hall as an allegory about the transfer of power from the church to the state, taking Cromwell as a representative of a more modern, less spiritual, more skeptical way of thinking, with More, for all his courage, as a bloodthirsty hypocrite, even a type of terrorist. “When you interrogated men you called heretics,” Cromwell points out to More, “you did not allow evasion. You compelled them to speak and racked them if they would not” (582). But such a reading results in a gross failure to honor Mantel’s accomplishment in infusing real life-blood into her characters. Making them serve as mere symbols for anything is like scorching an entire forest of complexity to make way for some more orderly construction. Indeed, one of the recurring themes in the novel is the poor fit between required roles and the real humans made to play them—the constant need to “arrange your face” before entering a scene. This is best captured in another of the rare moments when Cromwell lets his guard down to speak openly and sincerely, this time to his nemesis and friend Thomas More as he sits in a cell: “I am glad I am not like you,” he says.

“Undoubtedly. Or you would be sitting here.”
“I mean, my mind fixed on the next world. I realize you see no prospect of improving this one.”
“And do you?”
…“I once had every hope,” he says. “The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it’s just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one’s solitary soul like a flame under a glass. The spectacles of pain and disgrace I see around me, the ignorance, the unthinking vice, the poverty and the lack of hope, and oh, the rain—the rain that falls on England and rots the grain, puts out the light in a man’s eye and the light of learning too, for who can reason if Oxford is a giant puddle and Cambridge is washing downstream, and who will enforce the laws if judges are swimming for their lives? Last week the people were rioting in York. Why would they not, with wheat so scarce, and twice the price of last year? I must stir up the justices to make examples, I suppose, otherwise the whole of the north will be out with billhooks and pikes, and who will they slaughter but each other? I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free. If only that were true, Master More, you wouldn’t have to pray for me nearly as hard as you do.” (588-9)

And so we learn that our symbol for the emergence of modern statecraft and realpolitik fears for his own soul, just as we do. “I do, of course, pray for you,” More assures him. “When we meet in Heaven, as I hope we will, all our differences will be forgot.”

            The title Wolf Hall doesn’t merely refer to the home of Jane Seymour, the young girl Henry will turn to when Anne fails to give him a male heir. In a scene late in the novel, when Christophe, one of Cromwell’s servants, hears what sounds like howling, he asks “Is there loups? In this kingdom?” Cromwell answers, “I think the wolves all died when the great forests were cut down. That howling you hear is only the Londoners” (463). In a later scene, when his head cook Thurston explains that he wants to stay in the kitchen instead of delegating from afar because things may “take a downturn”—as they did for the cardinal—Cromwell recalls a threat the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, made to Wolsey: “Tell him to go north, or I will come where he is and tear him with my teeth.” At the time, Cromwell had joked dismissively, “May I substitute the word ‘bite’?” But years later, when the cardinal is long dead, the duke’s words still resonate: “The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man” (531).

Now, Cromwell must realize, part of his role is to answer to this same man who had a hand in his friend’s downfall, just as he must cater to Anne’s every whim despite her being the main force behind Wolsey’s ruin, just as he must invariably say yes to the king who stood by allowing it to happen. He does what he must in this world. Yet, for all his brilliance and competence and wit and cunning, despite his intimidating demeanor and his discipline in keeping his eye at all times fixed on his interests, Cromwell is a man with real heart. His soul, as revealed to us through Mantel’s singular virtuosity and ever so complicatedly human voice, is a flame that could never be captured under any glass, one that she alone could set alight on the page. And all the heart that she gives to her character is the reason why every page of Wolf Hall pulses with its heat.