Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The actor Mark Rylance brought Thomas Cromwell to life for me but it was Hilary Mantel that gave Rylance Cromwell’s head: his context, his history, and his words. Without Mantel’s fantastic and detailed imaginings of the Tudor reign of King Henry VIII, the BBC film could not have been the success it is. The book focuses on Thomas Cromwell, lawyer, statesman, Henry’s right-hand man. Little is known about Cromwell’s early life. He was born to a blacksmith around 1485-6 but it is only when he begins to work with Cardinal Wolsey around 1516 that details of him begin to appear outside of town records.

Mantel told Mona Simpson at the Paris Review that she wanted to be a historian, but when she'd read all the histories and novels about a place and time, she wasn't satisfied. So she began to invent and embellish. I had tried both reading and listening to Mantel’s novel of Cromwell years ago when the awards started flooding in; despite my admiration for Mantel’s work, I simply could not keep my mind on this man and his rise to power. I didn’t like her Cromwell, I lacked knowledge about the Tudors and their dynasty, and I just didn’t see why it mattered. Rylance’s performance in the BBC drama changed all that. The filmmakers followed the books closely, catapulting over huge swathes of text but somehow including all relevant detail and context provided by Mantel. In the BBC drama Cromwell is scrappy but dignified, mentally adroit, and enormously capable in the art of living. Cromwell lives.

I’d read somewhere that Mantel wrote her novel as a kind of drama. In a recent interview she reminds us,
“We believe our happiness depends on the choices we make, but sometimes fate takes over. If you strip away hindsight, and try to imagine the Tudors living their lives as we live, without knowledge of how their stories will end, then in a heartbeat they leap out of the history books: you find them next to you, in the street….they take us to the centre of ourselves, our own needs and secret wishes, our own pleasures and torments.”

She really did make Cromwell live again, and reimagined an Anne Boleyn that vastly changes my earlier view of her as victim. It is a vivid rewriting of what we call history. The real Wulfhall, family seat of the Seymour family and of Jane, Henry VIII’s third wife, is no more, torn down in 1665.

Wolf Hall Manor
Wulf Hall

Nearby Wolf Hall Manor was built on the original family estate and stands now (pictured above), dilapidated but still somehow grand, carrying the name if not the history of that fated moment when King Henry decides to rid himself of Queen Anne Boleyn. Anne becomes the instrument by which Cromwell loses his position and his life. The full article showing more pictures of Wolf Hall Manor is here.

I love that Mantel showed the arc of Cromwell’s rise and fall in her title, Wolf Hall. The name of the manor house holds such portent, knowing what we know now. Her follow-on Bringing up the Bodies elaborates the downfall and death of Anne Boleyn, and the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light will highlight the fall of Cromwell himself. Mantel talks candidly about her work and her direction in this interview with the Australian radio host Gillian O’Shaughnessey. It is astonishing and thrilling to me that Mantel only just discovered that her talent might be best suited to plays. Of course! It is a revelation that gives her a new lease on life and us the hope of great and meaningful work yet to come.

And here is a fascinating radio interview with the great Mark Rylance.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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