A trip through time

Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boley
by Alison Weir (Jonathan Cape)

Thomas Cromwell is familiar from CJ Sansom’s brilliant historical mysteries, where he is lawyer Matthew Shardlake’s boss in various investigations. There, though, he is a shadowy figure. He comes fully to life in Hilary Mantel’s novel, where we first meet him barely out of boyhood — and thrashed to a pulp by his violent father.

Cromwell escapes that father (and England) to Europe, where he trades and soldiers. He returns to enter the service of Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry VIII’s chief minister. After the fall of Wolsey, the commoner Cromwell would rise to a position previously held only by aristocrats: that of “Master Secretary” to the king, besides holding various other powerful, simultaneous posts. He was basically Henry’s right-hand man, his fixer, and for longer than anyone else lasted.

Cromwell was instrumental in getting the king married to Anne Boleyn, as the king desired, and later instrumental in her demise. But that’s to get ahead of the story in Wolf Hall, which ends at the point of Anne’s ascension. Hopefully that means there is at least one, possibly two, Cromwell novels to come — besides, we haven’t even yet set foot in the hall of the title.

Mantel’s Cromwell is a complex man, as he seems to have been historically. He is canny and insightful; he has a large and compassionate heart, but is also ruthless when ruthlessness is required. He suffers tragedy but visits it on others. He is resolute in action while being a questioner of religious doctrine at a time when the ferment around belief made it very dangerous to do anything but toe whichever line the king was currently taking. Cromwell plunges his arms up to the elbow in the messy politics of his time.

A frequent problem of historical novels is getting the language and the tone right. If they sound too modern it ruins the period feel — and many fall into the trap of confusing the ways in which such distant personages are similar to us, today, and how they are dissimilar. On the other hand, make it all too archaic and it begins to read like parody. No one but Shakespeare can get away with much Shakespearean “Prithee, milord”, “How now, my lady?” and “Zounds!”

Mantel gets the balance beautifully right, mostly by constructing a kind of language for Wolf Hall that feels timeless. That is, it carries no obviously contemporary reference or usage, but also carefully avoids the “Zounds!” problem. Her sentences are a masterful mix of directness and obliquity — rather like Cromwell himself.

In addition, Mantel has a marvellous control of plot, despite having to adhere to the historical record. Wolf Hall is not a straightforward novel, and it’s built out of short, cinematic scenes, but it grabs one like a good thriller and becomes quite difficult to put down. I haven’t read the other contenders, but I feel confident that it richly deserved its Man Booker Prize.

You can get more detail on the period from Alison Weir’s book on the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn — too much detail, really. This episode in Henry VIII’s reign is fascinating and a turning point in the history of both the English monarchy and European Christianity, but Weir is doing, perhaps to excess, what several contemporary historians like to do, which is to pore over all the old documents they can find and try to winkle out the truth of each minor development, weighing each piece of evidence on a finely calibrated scale.

It’s a commendable task, reminding us that the historical record is seldom unequivocal: different sources are credible to varying degrees and, of course, the sources often contradict one another. It’s hard enough to establish a precise truth for each specific issue, even harder to extrapolate people’s motivations from that, which is partly what we want to understand about historical events. Still, Weir gives it a jolly good go, fine-tooth comb in hand.

The Lady in the Tower is undeniably interesting, but all that careful weighing becomes tedious. You probably have to be more deeply into the Henrician era than I am, but often, while reading it, I longed for the kind of broad-brushstroke history-writing in which the historian studies the evidence, makes a decision on what is probably true, and sweeps onwards. And I’m still not sure about Cromwell’s role in the whole debacle.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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