The first point that Hilary Mantel should be commended for in her lengthy historical novel Wolf Hall is the humor. Mantel writes about a epoch filled with scandal, blood, corporeal and spiritual wants. But rather than relying mainly on the sex (unlike the very sexy show the Tudors) or drying the narrative with clunky play by plays, Mantel infuses these stodgy historical characters with the wit necessary to afloat.
Thomas Cromwell, the corrugated self-made protagonist, is a master of self-control. He possesses a mottled history after his escape from beneath the fist of his father at the age of about 15 (no one had thought it necessary to record his birth). When the reader meets him again it is after his shadowy years in Europe. Years that have schooled him in the ways of bankers, memory, control, as well as Italian, French, Flemish, to name a few.
Mantel succeeds in revealing all that passes beneath the impassive surface of Cromwell’s notably unattractive face. In her prose he has a rich internal life that is constructed from intelligence and shrewd observation. He both notices the person in the room everyone disregards and has the ability to fade from view himself.
Cromwell is made human by Mantel. His house at Austin Friars is first decimated by the sweating sickness, which takes his wife and daughters. Mantel crafts likely moments of tenderness between her hero and his family members.
Cromwell’s unlikely kindness is strewn across the pages of Wolf Hall. He takes in a number of wards as well as those fortune has dealt a bad hand. The man Mantel portrays is not soft; his are never acts of charity. When he fills his home with rouges he manages to transform them into indispensable persons. His generosity fills his house to the brim with wealth of influence, people, power and money. He is a force to be reckoned with.
Mantel’s novel makes it difficult, or impossible, not to like Cromwell. In addition to being clever, he is incredibly knowledgeable. His vast linguistic knowledge and his experience on foreign, military and marketing frontiers prove essential to his growing position of power. The nobles who surround him lack these qualifications. Cromwell’s common birth would hobble a lesser man. His shadowed past manages to count in his favor. Dirty dealings must have accelerated his acquisition of wealth and power but he does not appear to be fueled by greed. Smart calculations propel him forward.
It is perhaps a sign of the changes in England at the time that he was able to reach the heights he did.
Mantel’s excellent prose brings the stink and violence of Tudor times to life. Despite its length, the novel never lags. Mantel’s renders the historical characters at her disposal in all their complexity. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon and King Henry are rendered from the viewpoint of man who served in their time, not by history. Through Cromwell, Mantel snatches at the human filament beneath the label of Queen, peasant, whore.
Aside from the feat of rescuing Cromwell from the historical slop bucket, Mantel pulls off a more literary coup. From page one the reader is directly alongside Cromwell. “He” is always used. Mantel takes seriously the concept that mentioning a character’s name distances the reader from him. Despite the occasional awkward moment, her ploy succeeds in immersing the reader into whatever clandestine mission Cromwell is about to achieve. The reader is on Cromwell’s side as he sculpts laws in favor of King Henry’s desires, changes the identity of the queen and creates the Church of England. Not an easy feat.