It would be fair to say that the Booker Prize is not as highly regarded in Scotland as it is in England – largely because Scottish writers rarely feature on its radar. Only once has a Scottish writer won the prize (James Kelman in 1994) and this was immediately followed by middle England outrage that a writer who uses swearie words should win a literary prize. The last Scot on a short list was Ali Smith in 2005. Neither Alasdair Gray nor A. L. Kennedy have even got as close as the long list (unless it was before they were published). However, this year I have found myself reading three of the short listed titles (with, I suspect, The Quickening Maze to follow). Summertime I would have certainly read regardless; in the case of both The Little Stranger and Wolf Hall it seemed an opportunity to get acquainted with writers who had interested me in the past but whose work I had never got round to reading. That both were historical novels was neither an attraction nor a deterrent – it is, after all, not what genre you use, but what you do with it that counts. So what has Hilary Mantel done with Tudor England?
One of Mantel’s intentions seems to be to rehabilitate Thomas Cromwell’s reputation. Apparently (and you’ll understand that a Scottish education does not dwell extensively on the reign of Henry VIII) Cromwell is commonly portrayed as an underhand schemer, a 16th century gangster, in opposition to Thomas More’s principled and erudite saintliness. Mantel does this in a number of ways. Firstly, she presents the narrative from Cromwell’s point of view, encouraging the reader to sympathise with him. The use of the present tense makes his need to act and react seem constantly urgent. Cromwell is also generally referred to as “he” rather than by name. However, rather than encourage the reader to identify with him, this often makes the reader take a step back – is this “he” Cromwell or just an ordinary pronoun? – and goes some way to suggesting that he cannot be entirely known or understood. When a character’s name appears in a novel it seems the writer and reader have him entire in that word – the third person pronoun is vaguer and more elusive, it gives that character power over the reader in the same way Cromwell has power over other characters; it even has a slight Biblical feel to it.
Cromwell’s opaqueness to those around him is at least partly a result of his humble origins. Mantel gives us a vivid picture of his childhood in the opening chapter: his violent, abusive father instilling a toughness in him that would last a lifetime. She also invents a series of picaresque adventures across Europe in his youth allowing him to gain experience in warfare, trade and finance, and to master a number of languages, which are referred to in flashback throughout the novel. Clearly Cromwell’s humble origins are important, and perhaps even suggestive of changes taking place in England at the time. However, the narrative so closely follows Cromwell that we have little sense of the country, only the court and we also only have access to other characters’ opinions of Cromwell that they are prepared to share with him. Equally, we are limited to Cromwell’s view when observing the other figures of the court. This tends to mean that the lesser the historical importance the more interestingly realised they are. Mary Boleyn is one good example. Henry and Anne are so often playing a role in public that their private selves are rarely revealed. An exception to this is Thomas More, but here Mantel’s intention is to balance her humanisation of Cromwell with a more flawed rival. In particular, the scene where he ridicules his wife in front of his invited guests is unsettling.
More and Cromwell’s confrontations are amongst the best scenes of the novel. This is partly because Cromwell so rarely shows any passion – he is ever the persuader and the pragmatist. More’s egotism frustrates him:
“You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More.”
This is not to say That Cromwell is unfeeling. He frequently takes those in need into his household and is shown to genuinely care for them. He also seems to have a dislike of execution – perhaps because of a burning he witnessed as a boy. Most importantly, however, Mantel uses his relationship with his wife and daughters, who are all killed by the plague within a few weeks, to present his human side. Though other women come into his life, the impression is given that he never entirely gets over his wife’s death. One particular memory of his daughter also stays with him:
“The year that Grace was an angel, she had wings made of peacock feathers.”
This image reoccurs on a number of occasions. Mantel succeeds in humanising Cromwell without sentimentalising him – though at the expense of exorcising any strong religious feeling he has. In fact, the religious divisions of the time, though occasionally rehearsed in speech, do not seem a central concern of the text.
The Wolf Hall of the title is, of course, the home of the Seymours and Henry’s next wife (and also an apt name for the world Cromwell lives in – “homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man”). Does this create a sense of destiny or a sense of futility? – that having made it possible for Henry to marry Anne, it would now all begin again. This curtailment means that we only see Cromwell in power – we do not see that his destiny, like Wolsey and More, will be to fall from the King’s favour, an overarching narrative that might have more contemporary resonance. Of course, a second volume is planned, but in the meantime this seems a little hollow. For those interested in the period, or in English history, this is a fascinating novel, but beyond that it does not seem to go.