Tuesday, 18 November 2014
The book charts the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell within the court of Henry Vlll (talk about swimming with sharks..) from his base roots to a position of undreampt off, then and now, unscaled heights. Yet the very name Cromwell has a certain resonance, one that history has not dimmed, if anything perhaps mis-shaped and muddied. Popular thinking has led to us thinking of Thomas Moore in saintly terms whilst we revile Cromwell and his like. Yet Hilary Mantel explores just how much of that is perhaps historical black-ops and the blackening of a name fallen from favor. As a thought exercise it entertains on that level alone. As Henry himself puts it;
DO I RETAIN YOU FOR WHAT IS EASY.JESUS PITY MY SIMPLICITY.
I HAVE PROMOTED YOU TO A PLACE IN THIS KINGDOM THAT NO
ONE OF YOUR BREEDING HAS EVER HELD IN THE WHOLE HISTORY
OF THIS REALM.DO YOU THINK IT WAS FOR YOUR PERSONAL
BEAUTY?I KEEP YOU, MASTER CROMWELL, BECAUSE YOU ARE AS
CUNNING AS A BAG OF SERPENTS.BUT DO NOT BE THE VIPER IN
MY BOSOM.YOU KNOW MY DECISION.EXECUTE IT.
The court of the king, the inner circle and the powers festering there, was a dangerous place for the unwary and even the cleverest of men and women were apt to find themselves fodder for the big fish they thought themselves swimming with. We guess at the personal motivations of men such as Thomas Cromwell but they rarely committed to paper anything which could at a later date be used against them. Wolf Hall is a wordy work of historical prose, a memory play, a remembrance of all things Cromwellian. Novels based on the lives of the long dead reverberate with Proustian intent; all being remembrance of things past. It is in the author's hands that history may come alive again and in Hilary Mantell's it does that with a gritty hand held humanity. The pock marked dialogue and the rough and ready lives certainly feel very real. The imagined character of Thomas Cromwell carries with it many negative associations not just for his own actions but for he actions of others with the same surname. Those who admire his actions pat themselves on he back smug in the knowledge of the historical nature of his acts. The statute of limitations that history endows. Those appalled by his actions demonstrate a similar smugness in that they attribute the blood on the hands of others directly to his. Not that those hands were clean and yet certainly no dirtier than the hands of the monarch he served. The blood and dirt of history clings to every page of Hilary Mantell's book, her record of a period of English history whose influence bleeds through to this day. She really pulls it off too.
I have only ever read one other book by Hilary Mantell. Beyond Black; a novel full of troubled and restless souls, ordinary and extraordinary, murder and magic, real and imagined. A bit like this one. I think she has always understood that history is not something that happens to other people, It is something that weaves all off us into it's tapestry. In that book she wrote about people capable of speaking to the dead which is in a sense what writers of historical fiction do. Well, they at least attempt to speak for the dead, not in the sense of functioning as table wrappers or oozing ectoplasm, but in a bold sense speaking as authentically as aurally possible. In a sense forging fictional memories. Strangely I have no memory of the book ending, just that words and sentences wound down in the way that a conversation might.
One without a full stop.
But then life is like that is it not.