Years ago, before I ever read one of her books, I saw part of an interview with author Hilary Mantel. I didn’t know anything about her and I had no reason to continue listening, until she said something that grabbed my attention and has inspired me ever since. “I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian.”
Mantel repeated this idea in an interview for The Paris Review and proceeded to explain how she found herself in the midst of historical fiction:
“I’d read all the history books and novels [about the French Revolution] I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group—the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing. There was no novel about them. I set about writing it—at least, a story about some of them—so I could read it. And of course, for a long time it seemed as if I were the only person who ever would. My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts. Then, not many months in, I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up. At the end of it, I thought, I quite liked that.”
My mind has been captured by this idea—writing fiction to cover the territory that history leaves out—ever since. And I, too, feel as if I have missed my chance of becoming a historian. I am hours from the resources that interest me, tied to the schedule of running a house and raising children, and undoubtedly lacking the education that would make me a respectable member of the historical community. Given my love for literature, maybe I should just start using my historical imagination and write a story.
In her novels, however, Mantel proves that it’s possible to be both a good novelist and historian. There are academics out there who would debate that statement based upon the spin she puts on certain historical figures, but I think it’s safe to say she has revolutionized the way we view Tudor history. In her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which opens with Wolf Hall, Mantel takes everything she could find about Cromwell and dramatizes it, creating her “documentary fiction.” Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from near the end of his service to the powerful Cardinal Wolsey through the years in which Cromwell insinuates himself into Henry VIII’s innermost circle. He engineers the downfall of Queen Katherine and the rise of Anne Boleyn, prodding Henry away from the Church all the while. By the end of the novel, Cromwell’s rival Thomas More is dead, Anne has failed to produce a male heir, and Henry is on his way to Wolf Hall, home of Jane Seymour’s family—and it’s a little less certain who Cromwell really is.
Cromwell is a fascinating enigma in Mantel’s hands. He is at times tender, patient, generous, and terribly cold and calculating. He serves Wolsey and then the king, yet is secretly an evangelical who despises the abuses of the Church. He is the blacksmith’s boy with a murky past, yet he rises to advise and turn the heart of the king. Cromwell hides—even from himself—behind a cloak of ambiguity. The reader is never sure what Cromwell believes. He masters the “defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne.” Early in life he adapts the motto “Choose your prince”—and then serves his prince in whatever way is expedient, becomes whatever his prince needs him to be. “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.” Over and over we are left wondering, How can such a man go along with this? How can he be party to something so terrible?
We get the feeling that Cromwell orchestrates every Englishman—and Frenchman and Spaniard and Pope—to his purpose. And he loves it. “Henry says, ‘Do what you have to do. I will back you.’ It’s like hearing words you’ve waited all your life to hear. It’s like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.” Yet Mantel is sure to remind us what a horrifying place Tudor England is. Each man is out for himself—out to raise his family’s name and out to better his own station. Lives change overnight at the king’s whim and the world dances to stay on his good side. Cromwell, after making a last ditch effort to save the life of Sir Thomas More, receives from Henry a chilling dressing-down and reminder of the razor-thin edge between even his life and death: “‘Do I retain you for what is easy? … 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… 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.’”
This Tudor world, with its plagues and beheadings and burnings-at-the-stake, is so vivid that it’s hard to look away. Even though I know the end of Thomas Cromwell, and seeing his life unfold is something like watching a train wreck, there’s enough tenderness and humor in him that I cannot help but like him. The book is undeniably hard to read—Mantel doesn’t tell us everything, and understanding Tudor history is like unraveling a Gordian knot—but I’m looking forward to diving back in with the second volume of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies.
★ ★ ★ ★/5
**Reading tips: Wolf Hall is not only hard to read because of the complexity of Tudor history, but also because Mantel has an annoying tendency to use the pronoun “he” all the time. Before reading the book, I was lucky enough to find a book review telling me to assume that “he” usually refers to Cromwell. It gets easier to follow as the book goes on. Also, as “documentary fiction” about a corrupt foreign world, there are some adult elements in the book.