Hilary Mantel's ecstatically-received, Booker-winning Wolf Hall is of the latter type. It follows the rising fortunes of Thomas Cromwell, counselor to Henry VIII and one of the chief architects of the English Reformation, from the downfall of his patron Cardinal Wolsey to that of his enemy Sir Thomas More. It's the kind of historical novel I tend to view with distrust, which tries to make stories out of recorded events and characters out of real people. I've written before about my unease with works that try to fictionalize reality. A person's life, be it ever so important and full of event, is not a story, with structure, themes, and most importantly, a point, and to reduce it to one is to diminish it, and that person, in some ineffable but very real way. And whereas works like The Other Boleyn Girl or the television series The Tudors reshape the events of history into a genre that wears its unreality on its sleeve--respectively, a romantic melodrama and a trash soap opera--and thus defuse that inevitable diminishing, Wolf Hall is told with a straight face, as a naturalistic novel that purports not only to describe events as they were but to describe Cromwell as he was. It thus borrows significance from history even as it embroiders it and twists it into a shape that suits Mantel's purposes.
It's a difficulty that Mantel herself seems aware of. Some way into the novel, Cromwell travels to France with Henry's entourage, and has an audience with the French king, Francis I. As the two discuss their hopes for more friendly relations between their countries, Francis breezily observes "Who now remembers Agincourt?"
[Cromwell] almost laughs. 'It is true,' he says. 'A generation or two, or three... four... and these things are nothing.'It's a startling exchange, and it takes a few moments to realize just why it's startling--because the event that will make Agincourt immortal won't happen for nearly 70 years, when a playwright trying to curry favor with a queen not yet born will write a piece of hagiography about her ancestor, and tie Agincourt to a piece of writing so sublime that it will come to epitomize valor, leadership, and courage on the field of battle. To put it another way, very few of us remember Agincourt as it was, or the significance that Cromwell and Francis I attach to it, but very many of us remember the spin Shakespeare put on it in a piece of historical fiction. The story, so long as it's sufficiently well told, is much more powerful than the fact, something that Cromwell is very much aware of, seeing as much of his service to Henry involves passing laws and proclamations that change the nature of reality and rewrite the past, turning a legal wife into a mistress, a legitimate daughter into a bastard, a pope into a bishop and a king into the head of the church. "It's the living that turn and chase the dead," Cromwell thinks at the end of the novel. "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 has, of course, been much rewriting of the lives of the movers and shakers of the English Reformation, and as much as it is (an attempt at) a straight retelling of that history, Wolf Hall is response to these retellings. The general consensus they--and most particularly Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, to which Wolf Hall often seems like a direct response--have reached about Cromwell is that he was a grasping, unprincipled man, willing to adopt any creed and mouth any ideology in order to get ahead, as opposed to Thomas More's staunch adherence to his beliefs, which eventually lead to his death. In Mantel's hands, More becomes dogmatic and intractable, his ironclad belief the root cause of his pitiless pursuit, torture, and brutal execution of anti-Catholic heretics, whereas, as Dan Hartland points out, Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of conviction:
Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.I would go even further and say that Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of integrity and sense of personal dignity as well (the latter is presumably linked to his humble origins, which leave him, unlike the nobles around him, indifferent to his family's honor). Several times over the course of the novel, Cromwell visits prisoners condemned for their words--the heretic John Frith, condemned by More; the self-proclaimed prophetess Elizabeth Barton, who had threatened Henry with divine retribution for casting off Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn; and finally, More himself. Each time, he counsels the prisoners to lie, recant, and compromise their principles in order to save themselves. "I would advise anyone to get a few more weeks of life, by any means they can," he tells Barton, advising her to 'plead her belly' in order to delay her execution, and the final conflict of the novel, between Cromwell and More, hinges on More's refusal to compromise his immortal soul by swearing an oath acknowledging Henry as the head of the church in England and the legality of his marriage to Anne. What in A Man for All Seasons was treated as the crowning glory of More's saintliness is, in Wolf Hall, described as the epitome of his arrogance and self-regard, with Cromwell, instead of the devil trying to tempt More away from righteousness, portrayed as a humanistic angel trying to save More from himself.
But Wolf Hall doesn't simply depict Cromwell as a modern person, but as a modern literary character. If Mantel is storying history, she's doing so in the style of the 20th century stream of consciousness novel, and her study of Cromwell reveals a very familiar type of person--complicated and conflicted, never entirely possessed by a single emotion or completely certain of his feelings. The novel's storying of history of overlaid by an almost impressionistic journey through Cromwell's past and present, and his concerns are larger than the affairs of state he's tasked with--securing the future of his children and wards, mourning for his wife and daughters, cultivating relationships with the heretics, freethinkers, and the merchants who are remaking Europe, slowly and imperceptibly wresting power away from the feudal lords. Mantel's Cromwell may not hold to a system or a creed, but he does have a goal--a stronger, more prosperous England, whose wealth is held by its government rather than by Rome, and whose people, high-born and low, aren't held back by tradition and superstition.
So Wolf Hall does three things--it retells the story of the early years of the English Reformation; it is a character study of Thomas Cromwell as a modern humanist; and it is a meta-commentary on historical fiction and how it can come to supersede historical facts. Each of these elements is extremely well done, and the novel, despite its brick-like appearance, is such an engrossing read that I very nearly swallowed it whole. But I find myself falling short of the rapturous praise it's received in other quarters, and I think this is because these three elements end up warring with each other. Cromwell is the heart of the novel, but how seriously can we take Mantel's hagiography of him when even she's poking holes at it? And if we were tempted to read Wolf Hall as the character study of a fictionalized Cromwell, there is its careful, almost meticulous attention to detail, to even the smallest events of the period, to contend with, which insists that we take it seriously as a realistic and accurate representation of its era.
I'm not quite as down on the novel as Dan Hartland, who, despite enjoying it, concludes that Mantel goes too far in portraying Cromwell as an accidental politician, and ultimately makes him almost a Mary Sue, but I do feel manipulated by her use of history. Wolf Hall ends with More's execution, which might be said to be the apex of Cromwell's career--his last and most powerful enemy vanquished, his immediate goals--the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn, the divestment of England's ties to Rome--achieved, but rather conveniently leaves off the actual, more bitter, ending to his story. Mantel has said that she plans to write a sequel to Wolf Hall covering Cromwell's downfall, but it's hard not to feel that she cut the story off when she did not because she wanted to write a duology but because it would have been so much harder for her to spin as sympathetic and humanistic the events of the last five years of Cromwell's life, in which the very mechanisms he put in place to stave off the corruption of the church end up enabling the corruption of the state, and the same tools he used to get rid of Catherine and cement Henry's power will be turned against Anne and finally himself, turning a faithful wife and a loyal counselor into traitors. Whether or not the sequel was in Mantel's mind when she sat down to write Wolf Hall, the fact remains that, taken on its own, it makes for a confusing statement--simultaneously relying on history, and our familiarity with it, for its significance, and expecting us to ignore those bits of history it finds inconvenient.
Wolf Hall is the third of this year's Booker nominees I've read, following The Little Stranger and The Children's Book, which I believe is a personal record (still on my to be read stack is Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, but I'm not particularly drawn to either of the remaining nominees). Each of these historical novels is an accomplished, engrossing, albeit seriously flawed read, but if I had to pick a favorite, I would probably give the Byatt the slightest of edges over the Mantel, not so much for being a better book but for treating history in a way that I'm more comfortable with. As I wrote at the time, Byatt doesn't so much story history as report it, and as problematic and frustrating as this approach can be, it did at least draw a line between the fact and fiction that kept me from being knocked out of the story, as I repeatedly was during my reading of Wolf Hall, by the realization that, for all her acknowledgment of the unreliability of any fictional representation of the past, Mantel was selling as historical fact a bit of mythology. It is, of course, inevitable that any work of historical fiction will twist and shape the facts of history to fit its own story, but I prefer a work that acknowledges this inevitability to one that pays lip service to it, but also expects us to forget it.