I’ve had Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel Wolf Hall on my bookshelf for years. With Tudor history as an interest (my pen name here derives from one of Henry VIII’s queens) and this being one of the most hailed historical fictions about the period in recent years, it seems strange that I’ve never gotten around to reading it, but as I progressed through infertility, it got a bit too pointed to read about women who suffered awful fates for not bearing the required (male) child. With the final book in the trilogy having recently come out and my last infertility treatment finished, I decided to give it another try.
The novel centers on Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers – more what I’d term one of Henry VIII’s “fixers”. Cromwell, a clever lawyer most famous for his take-down of Anne Boleyn, is a tricky historical figure typically portrayed as a villain (often in contrast to his contemporary, literally canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More). Like More, Cromwell paid for his service to Henry VIII with his head – though Henry later regretted Cromwell’s execution. Mantel, instead of focusing on More, uses her imagination and history to rehabilitate Cromwell’s reputation, making him a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character.
Mantel has written about her own infertility and endometriosis, most notably in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost. It’s incredibly fascinating to see how she tackles having, losing, and wishing for children in this story that turns so sharply on birth and heritage. In modern times, when having children is (sometimes) more of a choice one way or the other, Henry VIII is sometimes seen as a bit of a curiosity in his desperation for a male heir. Historically, however, Henry’s own father Henry VII won the crown of England through combat, defeating Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry VII (Lancaster) then married the leading lady from the rival house, Elizabeth of York, to try to bring together the warring factions. Civil war was not a particularly distant memory, there were still members of royal clans in England with some claim to the throne, and Henry VIII was well aware that war was a very real possibility if he did not produce a male heir. Mantel keenly allows all of these to intersect early on in a meditation from one of Henry VIII’s cardinals, Thomas Wolsey, speaking to Cromwell: “’Imagine this. You are a man of some thirty-five years of age. You are in good health and of hearty appetite…your joints are supple, your bones support you, and in addition you are King of England. But.’ He shakes his head. ‘But! If only he wanted something simple. The Philosopher’s Stone. The elixir of youth. One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces…Now the chest of gold I have hopes of, and the elixir, all the rest. But where shall I begin looking for a son to rule his country after him?’”
It is possibly one of the best bits I have ever read on the difficulty of not having the children one wishes. Mantel sums it up so neatly, pointing out that even magical elixirs are easier to come by than children in some situations.
The novel never rushes anywhere – at around 600 pages, it’s not a quick read – but Mantel has a way of mixing descriptive passages with short spurts of action. She lingers on sumptuous fabrics as well as gory executions, inviting the reader to witness both. Many characters given more sympathetic portrayals elsewhere in fiction, in this novel are presented in a less than flattering light – More as a torturer of innocents, Katherine of Aragon as a deeply stubborn woman who refused to yield, and Anne Boleyn becoming a shrill and deeply unpleasant woman*. All this carefully contrasted to the coolheaded Cromwell, who, in addition to his historically recorded calculating nature, given a genuine love for his children, his wife, and his wards.
It’s a fascinating reversal and goes to show how history and reputation often depend heavily on the writers in charge. While Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and desperation for a male heir was a major reason for Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, another component of that schism was the wealth of the monasteries and RCC in England. Henry, having spent his parsimonious father’s wealth and perennially broke, got the almost irresistible chance to take over the immense properties when he declared himself head of the church. Cromwell was instrumental in making that happen. Mantel takes Cromwell from a ruthlessly greedy schemer to a believer in church reformation that sees the monasteries as places of corruption, preying on the faithful.
Even though there are no mysteries or spoilers in that all is well-worn history, with her choice of one of the most unlikely protagonists in the historical record, Mantel keeps the story fresh. I just purchased the next installment, the ominously titled Bring Up the Bodies, covering the fall of Anne Boleyn.
* Anne Boleyn is a tough historical character to tease out accurately in terms of personality. Historical records tend to see her as either the martyred, saintly mother of Elizabeth I and tout some of her better deeds, particularly her well-known strength as she came to her execution, or they tend to see her as a terrible woman who sent good people to their deaths, broke the Church, and generally a nasty, temperamental piece of work. The best source material for Anne’s life come from the ambassadors to the court, particularly Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was a staunch supporter of Katherine of Aragon. There’s no denying that Anne did alienate key supporters and appears to have been quite cruel toward her step-daughter, Mary. It’s hard to say, though, whether or not some of the other behavior attributed to her was quite as malignant as certain accounts give. There’s also very little doubt that Anne was murdered on trumped-up charges, and as Chapuys notes, showed great courage, admirability, and grace in the face of her impending death. Perhaps Anne was all of these things.