Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

Sun Jun 13, 2010

I was left very much wanting to know how Mantel intends to handle the final weeks of Cromwell’s life in the next book, which Joan Acocella’s review in the New Yorker, if I have this straight, mentions is coming. (Mantel apparently took more space than she anticipated originally.) The Duke of Norfolk comes across more like a character in a George R. R. Martin saga than a historical figure, and to think of him being involved in a successful interrogation/intimidation of Mantel’s polytropic Cromwell is difficult to credit. This Cromwell is Italiante through and through—-a Poundian Malatesta, who (jokingly?) is believed to have a spent a summer in the employ of Cesare Borgia. He also, interestingly enough, has learned the rhetorical art of the memory palace, which enables him to rise high in Wolsey’s estimation.

The exceptionally sympathetic portrayal of Wolsey as a benevolent pragmatist contrasted with the equally hostile characterization of Thomas More as an inquisitorial fanatic has caught most reviewers’ attention. Colin Burrow, for example, writes:

Thomas More is here a dogmatic persecutor of heretics (which he was), a man perhaps unhealthily obsessed by his daughter Meg (which he may have been), and someone who makes cruelly unfunny jokes about his second wife, Dame Alice (which he did). He is not much else (although he was).

Cromwell has read More’s work carefully and makes several, often ironic, references to the Utopia when thinking about him. One easy way out of Burrow’s criticism is to note that it seems plausible that Cromwell would have thought both more highly of Wolsey than subsequent observers and considerably less of More, and the entire narrative is focalized (through a somewhat unsettling use of pronouns, among other devices) through Cromwell. Much is made of the, speculative as far as I know, abusive character of his father and his subsequent dislike of callous authority and casual brutality. These are, of course, two things for which he has had quite a bad press over the years. I also wonder what will be made of his final statements before execution, which Froude and others claimed to be fraudulent slanders. Mantel surely suggests that he is in considerable sympathy with many of the key tenets of the reformation and has him remember collecting the flesh of Lollard martyr Joan Broughton. But he seems to acknowledge that this memory may have been faulty, and the ability of memory, even finely tuned mnemonic technologies, to change themselves to fit necessity is another idea explored in the novel.

Much of my recent exposure to the period has come from my wife’s interest in the Showtime series, of which I have only seen an episode or two. It’s been enough, however, to almost expect to hear in a hallway or pub some fraternity gentleman, perhaps, address another as “your grace” in a husky voice; and I have winced in advance. (Though the salaciousness of the show’s treatment of Catherine Howard, which I suppose might be covered in some way in Mantel’s sequel, will be interesting to compare.)