Review: Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel

So I have loved the Tudors since 1994 when they were covered in my Year 3 History topic … I won’t bore regular readers by going over all of this again.  I actually went to the Tower of London today and I geek out in a rather worrying way and I have been reading some Books About Tudors from The Pile recently which made going to the Tower even more exciting than it would otherwise have been.  Still, if you want to read Tudor-related historical fiction, although there is a lot available … most of it is very disappointing.  So many books that are fluffy and really just about bodice ripping.  And inaccuracies that make me wince.  In the words of a grumpy child in my class, “It’s not fun”.  Imagine that said in a really sour voice with the pet lip stuck out and you not only have a picture of that little boy on one of his bad days, but you also get my attitude to the majority of Tudor historical fiction.

So, imagine quite how exciting it is then, as a Tudor fan, to have someone write not just one but two books that are not only a lovely step out of the fluffy mould but also actually so well written that they both actually manage to win the Booker Prize!  These books hit my top 10.  If I were to describe the kind of book that I would enjoy, then it would be pretty close to these.  They’re just very awesome but even if you’re not a Tudor fan, I think that they can be enjoyed.  The first one deals with ‘The Great Matter’ (Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon) while the second focuses on Anne Boleyn’s downfall, yet both of the books look at the machinations of the court rather than simply looking at the romance and and the costumes, which is a trap that other authors fall into *cough* Philippa Gregory *cough*.  It may be the wrong way to start a review by describing the awesomeness but it’s just the truth.

For people who have not yet had the pleasure, Hilary Mantel here takes on the life of Thomas Cromwell, who has become rather the Darth Vader of Tudor England.  It was him who masterminded the downfall of Anne Boleyn, it was also he who sorted out the monasteries – he was the guy who Got Stuff Done for Henry VIII, after Henry VIII drove Thomas Wolsey to his early grave.  History is rarely kind to these kind of men, the bag men, those who wait in the shadows and do the things that the people who are up front and in the centre would rather not grubby their hands with.  I mentioned fluffy Tudor fiction – in those books, Cromwell is pretty much always the Bad Guy.  It doesn’t help that he genuinely does look quite scary in his portrait; Mantel has her Cromwell look at it and comment sadly to his son that he looks like a murderer, to which the doe-eyed Gregory replies, “Didn’t you know?”

Thomas Cromwell looking cuddly

Mantel’s spin on this narrative comes from the revolutionary idea that perhaps Thomas Cromwell was an ordinary human being who had morals.  She takes the known facts of his life, that he was the son of a blacksmith, that he served as a mercenary, that he had admitted to being a ‘ruffian’ in his youth, that he served Wolsey, that his wife and two daughters died in quick succession, that he once claimed his mother was in his fifties when he was born, that he kept his entire extended family under his roof at Austin Friars.  The book begins with the boy Thomas Cromwell lying bleeding on the ground having been beaten and nearly killed by his father.  With some help from his sisters, he flees to the continent and joins the army.  The book then flits to him in mid-life when he is in the service of Thomas Wolsey, travelling the country for him and being the Cardinal’s eyes and ears.  Then it flits to the main phase, as the Cardinal’s hold on the King slips, as the age of Anne Boleyn begins, and in this savage world of political wolves, Cromwell must decide how to manage his loyalties.

 

Oliver Cromwell, family member

The Cromwell of Mantel’s imagination is far more well-rounded than the scheming man in the corner, bent on doing everybody ill. He has a fond relationship with his wife but finds it difficult to compliment her more than to say that she is ‘sweeter to look at than the cardinal’. He loves his children but inwardly frets over them. His younger daughter Grace dresses as an angel at Christmas one year in a beautiful pair of wings, an image which unfortunately meets an unpleasant end in Bring Up The Bodies.  Cromwell is moving his entire family onwards and upwards to better things, looking after his nephews and nieces as he goes.  It is factual that Oliver Cromwell was Thomas Cromwell’s great-great-nephew via his sister, but that Thomas Cromwell’s nephew Richard took his uncle’s last name because it had been his uncle who brought him up.  Within his family, if not in wider society, Cromwell was respected and well-loved.

Hilary Mantel (c) Guardian

None of this however explains the appeal of Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies.  The world of Cromwell is one of dark corridors and shadowy conversations, but we are not travelling it alone, but rather in the company of Cromwell.  Mantel writes in the stream of his consciousness, in Wolf Hall Cromwell is almost always refers to as ‘He’.  It was interesting that in Bring Up The Bodies, she often changed it to ‘He, Cromwell’, so presumably some people couldn’t quite keep up with her in the first one.  It does annoy me when writers have to do that – why can’t the readers just make a bit of an effort to follow things along?  For me, that extra word disrupted the flow, which was a shame because that feeling of walking through Cromwell’s thoughts was so seamless in the first novel.  Particularly vivid was the way that at one point, there is a shock revelation and we realise that Cromwell is still keeping secrets – this is a man whose very mind has doors that are locked and bolted.  The reader saunters on and thinks that there are no boundaries and that brick wall coming up was a real surprise.

Wolsey

It was interesting that in many ways, Cromwell’s most open relationship was with Thomas Wolsey.  Having raised Cromwell up, Wolsey has earned the right the speak freely.  While the rest of the court peek out of the corner of their eyes at the deadly-looking/”known murderer” Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey gaily agrees with them, remarking chirpily that growing up in monasteries was very bad for young men, since it made them grow up wild, ‘just look at Cromwell’ and happily attributing various atrocities to the latter.  But Wolsey is fast Cromwell’s friend and is allowed to rewrite Cromwell’s shadowy history for his own amusement because is trust between them.  Cromwell’s children paint their Easter eggs with cardinal’s hats and Wolsey is well loved as the family patron.  Thomas Wolsey is another man condemned to history as the butcher’s boy who rose above his station, but Mantel redeems him too through the warmth of his affection for Cromwell.

Wolsey and Cromwell are a team, Cromwell is his right-hand man but even as Wolsey begins his terrible tumble from the King’s grace, Cromwell remains loyal.  It is this steadfast fidelity to his patron which gives the character his integrity, the way that Cromwell is quietly pleased in a meeting when someone half suggests asking Wolsey something and then remembers that he is dead.  Too late, they realised his value.  This carries over to Bring Up The Bodies when it becomes clear that Anne Boleyn has to go.  As Anne is escorted to the Tower, she remarks to Cromwell out of the blue, “You never forgave me for the cardinal”.  It is the truth – dissatisfied with his origina parentage, Cromwell had adored Wolsey as his father and he is revealed as relentless in his pursuit of justice for the old man.  Whether or not it is historically true that Cromwell was motivated by revenge for the man who first promoted him at court, it makes for a very compelling narrative.

Cromwell may be despised by the nobility as having jumped above his station but he is also the man who gets things done.  He is omniscient and omnicompetent – the perfect advisor despite his low birth, and he promises to protect Henry from people rising against him, Cromwell’s sister-in-law murmurs that Henry himself looked afraid.  Cromwell does not waste time with florid speeches, he is not a political posturer, his advice is to ‘Love your neighbour.  Study the market.  Increase the speed of benevolence.  Bring in better figures next year’.  Yet still, his words have the power to haunt, in Bring Up The Bodies, he visits Katherine of Aragon and coldly reminds her that if she had gone more quietly, lives could have been saved and England might have remained part of Rome and Katherine’s dying words show that this speech remained with her.

Katherine was a daughter of Kings and Queens and a mother to a Queen and the wife of a King but perhaps in the dark of the night, when the worst of one’s self presses in, perhaps she did indeed feel that she would die dragging the bodies of those who had died behind her.  Mantel seems to understand this whole situation, that after ‘the Great Matter’, Henry would have no stomach to go through it again.  Or that Anne herself would completely refuse to be taken alive, as she herself acknowledges in Wolf Hall.  The only way she would ever go would be in death.  This is a hall of wolves, there is no room for faint hearts here.

Stephen Gardiner

There is a lightness of touch though in the midst of all of this savagery which makes these books a real delight.  Thomas Wriothesley, servant to the deadly Stephen Gardiner, helpfully introduces himself with the words “Call me Risley” which not only helps with potential confusion for the reader over how to pronounce his name (has flummoxed me for years) but also leads to a long-standing joke amongst Cromwell’s household who just refer to him as “Call Me”, for example “I was just talking to Call Me”, “Call Me told me”, “Oh look, it’s Call Me!”  In moments that are otherwise serious this is oddly hilarious.  Call Me’s patron Stephen Gardiner is in many ways Cromwell’s nemesis, one moment between them that I enjoyed was when Cromwell inwardly mused that he would like to defenestrate Gardiner, just as Gardiner asks him anxiously why he is looking at the window.  Yet as the books go on, it becomes clear that Stephen Gardiner is a very dangerous opponent.

Also lined up on the dark side is Mantel’s version of Thomas More and he is not so nice.  I think it’s clear that Henry’s government was rather Thomas heavy; Wolsey, Cromwell, More.  Of these three Thomases, the first two are generally portrayed as scheming and above their station (nobody cares about Call Me) while there is the gentle-spirited More wafting about in the background, keeping to his conscience.  Lest we forget, Thomas More has been a saint since 1935 … but that does not mean that Mantel’s alternative interpretation of him was actually far off the truth.  My mother read a recent biography of him and his daughter Margaret Roper that caused her to lose sympathy for More, it’s clear that his persecution of ‘heretics’ was vicious.  More was also happy for his daughter to take the oath that Henry was head of the church so she could visit him, even though him not taking it was the reason why he was in the Tower in the first place.  Mantel’s More postures as the saintly ‘simple soul’ of A Man for all Seasons but Cromwell is there, telling him that instead he sees, ‘a vain and dangerous man’.  These are dangerous times, complicated times and More is not a simple man, so he ‘should not try to make things simple’.

Spoilers do not really apply here – we all know where the story is going.  It is one of the attractions of A Song of Ice and Fire that it has all of the grubby glory of the Wars of the Roses without the sadness in reading about characters and knowing their eventual fate.  Cromwell is quietly furious in watching his old master Wolsey being mocked by Wolsey’s old fool, but Patches merely states that he is doing what he needs to do to stay alive and invites them to discuss the matter in ten years time if Cromwell is still alive too.  As the reader, we know he will not be.  It’s funny, I once read a biography that commented that Elizabeth I was far luckier with her advisors than her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and that that made her reign easier.  Certainly, Elizabeth had Cecil, Dudley and Walsingham but I think that Elizabeth should get some credit for having held on to them.  These men were honoured as her good and faithful servants, allowed to retire in good time and then their sons took over for them.  Henry VIII had excellent people in his service but they did tend to meet untimely deaths.

Lady Margaret Beaufort

Henry VIII in Mantel’s world comes across as a mercurial figure, forever changing his mind.  One of my all time favourite passages in any book ever was when he visited Cromwell in Austin Friars while the latter was recovering from an illness.  Henry chats to the household about his childhood and goes on a huge rant about his grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort who had a ‘face like a death’s head’ and held her ‘past like a sword above us’ and scolded Henry every time that he danced or played at ball or laughed.  She adored Henry’s brother Arthur and Henry blazes that ‘When I became king instead, she lay down and died out of spite’.  Although Tudor portraits can offer little clue about people’s true characters, I have no difficulty in believing My Lady the King’s Mother to be a really hard-bitten woman.

It’s another thing that I like about this series, the role of stories and gossip.  At one point, the story sweeps across the country that Edward V is not dead but is all grown up now and is coming back to claim his throne, of course Cromwell muses that the boy would be in his sixties now and must have left things a little late.  It’s like how people liked to believe that Elvis didn’t die and could return, we forget about the passage of time.  Later on, Anne Boleyn spitefully calculates how often Jane Seymour’s father committed adultery with his daughter-in-law, factoring in that they abstained on Sundays and during Lent.  And it becomes clear how much Cromwell is hated when he sleeps with a married woman once while on the road and by the time he is back in London, the story is that he has had the husband murdered and is keeping the woman prisoner.  Stories grow, in the absence of reliable information, lies spread like fire through a hay barn and it is this uncertainty that brings people down, even those who believe themselves to be safe.  And through these stories, these embroiderings, these lies, we have the downfall of Anne Boleyn, not so much a tale of passion but a tale of the power of gossip.

It’s no mean feat, writing historical fiction like this, which gives us a whole new impression of a character who has been the perennial villain for the past five hundred years.  I liked the way that Mantel acknowledges this, through Cromwell, in the last few pages of Wolf Hall, thinking about how people nailed coffin lids down to keep the dead from leaping out but ‘it’s the living who chase the dead.  The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths; we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives’.  There’s no way of really knowing the truth about Cromwell, maybe trying to write him is wrong, morally wrong, but this was an age for great political minds and he can clearly count themselves amongst their number.  I’ve grown fond of Cromwell through these two books, it will be sad to read the next one, knowing that him sadly there is no way out.  The man who seems to control the court with a click of his fingers will also slip and slide down like so many others, but the fact that I now care shows that Mantel has achieved what she has set out to do, she has opened people’s minds.  To do that for a man with a reputation like Cromwell, no wonder she earned the Booker twice.

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by Hilary Mantel
Published by HarperCollins UK Genres: Fiction, General, Historical

6 thoughts on “Review: Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel

  1. I just discovered your blog, while looking for background on one of the Ice and Fire books. I LOVE your taste in books and your attitude towards them. Reading your material, I feel I could have written it, but probably not quite as well. I too enjoyed the Ice and Fire series even though I don't usually buy fantasy. I do like good historical fiction and loved most of the Tudor books you reviewed. I've still got at least 2000 pages to go before I'm finished with Ice and Fire, and so it'll be a while before I get to my next in line, Bring out the Dead. I read Wolf Hall last year and loved it too.
    I don't have a lot of time to read, but once I'm caught up with the books I already have, I'll be looking to you for inspiration for my next purchase! Yes, I also need to take book diets and stop buying so I can get caught up with the ones I've already got.

  2. Thank you! It's always very exciting to get positive feedback 🙂 It can be hard to find time to read, I had a four hour round trip today so I got through a whole novel but I know what you mean.

    A Song of Ice and Fire is a really good series … frustratingly unfinished sadly but Wolf Hall etc. gives a nice alternative.

    I have a scary number of books on the To Be Read pile so I completely understand … am trying very hard to quit the purchasing but it's not easy!

    Thank you again for reading 🙂 Please come back again soon!

  3. Isn't it just … the third volume in the trilogy is going to have a very high standard to live up to. I thought it was really clever how Mantel handles the exposition – I particularly liked the part when they're talking about Anne and Henry Percy's doomed betrothal by acting it out. She's just a very talented writer. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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