How to Twist a Knife

Colin Burrow

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
    Fourth Estate, 653 pp, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 00 723018 1

There was no shortage of bastards in the early 16th century, but Thomas Cromwell stands out as one of the biggest bastards of them all. His surviving correspondence shows the energy, efficiency and brutality of someone born to get things done. Whenever he says, ‘I remain still your perfect and sincere friend,’ you can be fairly sure he is about to terminate the addressee’s career with extreme prejudice. Little is known about his early life, except that his father was several times had up for drunkenness. In his teens he more or less disappeared, though rumour had it that he joined the French army, travelled in Italy and then worked in the Low Countries as a merchant. It was not until the 1520s, when a successful legal practice led him into the service of Cardinal Wolsey as an agent or legal fixer, that he began to make his mark on the historical record. When Wolsey failed to bring about Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and so fell from favour, Cromwell somehow managed seamlessly to enter the service of the king. He eventually came to fill much of the large gap left by the portly cardinal, from whom he learned a number of tricks for reconciling the law to the will of the king. No one understands exactly how the son of a blacksmith and brewer managed to become the king’s principal secretary and eventually, in 1536, privy seal, but his energy, efficiency and brutality played their part, along with his eye for detail and the bottom line.

At the moment when Cromwell was making his discreet but not completely unratlike move from Wolsey’s sinking ship to the service of the crown, George Cavendish, who was Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman usher and biographer, records seeing him weep: ‘I found Master Cromwell leaning in the great window, with a primer in his hand, saying Our Lady Matins, which since had been a strange sight. He prayed not more earnestly than the tears distilled from his eyes; whom I bade goodmorrow. And with that I perceived the tears upon his cheeks.’ It is a supremely artful description, making it look for a moment as though Cromwell is displaying his piety while weeping for his master’s fall. Cavendish, who remained a Catholic throughout the Reformation largely engineered by Cromwell, goes on to explain the real cause of the tears. Cromwell declares: ‘I am like to lose all that I have laboured for, all the days of my life, for doing of my master true and diligent service.’

Cavendish’s Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinal, His Life and Death is the only source explicitly recommended in the author’s note to Hilary Mantel’s new novel, which takes the story of Thomas Cromwell through the fall of Wolsey up to the execution of Thomas More in 1535. Cavendish himself fusses around the edges of the early stages of the book, a man preoccupied with table napkins and the operations of Fortune (all of which is a little hard on the historical Cavendish: a gentleman usher was several cuts above a butler, and Cavendish could make cunning political use of his complaints about the operations of Fortune). In the novel we see the scene of Cromwell weeping in the window from Cromwell’s perspective rather than Cavendish’s. As Mantel tells his story, Cromwell has recently lost his wife and daughter to the sweating sickness. The psalter he holds is not just any old prayer book: it is his wife’s. His tears are not those of a hypocritical reformer playing at penitence among the ruins of his prospects, but of a haunted man. The irritating Cavendish spots him as he mourns:

Let him not speak to me, he prays. Let George pass on.

‘Master Cromwell,’ he says, ‘I believe you are crying. What is this? Is there bad news about our master?’

He tries to close Liz’s book, but Cavendish reaches out for it. ‘Ah, you are praying.’ He looks amazed.

Cavendish cannot see his daughter’s fingers touching the page, or his wife’s hands holding the book.

Cromwell’s statement that he is crying because ‘I am going to lose everything, everything I have worked for, all my life’ is not the remark of a grim careerist caught off-guard, but of a man protecting himself from the irritating inanity of George the gentleman usher. Mantel finds hidden within the tableau of Cromwell weeping in the window a private, alternative history of personal grief and embarrassment – as well as the preoccupation with ghosts and lost children that runs through much of her other writing.

This moment exemplifies the brilliance and perhaps the perversity of Wolf Hall. Mantel’s chief method is to pick out tableaux vivants from the historical record – which she has worked over with great care – and then to suggest that they have an inward aspect which is completely unlike the version presented in history books. The result is less a historical novel than an alternative history novel. It constructs a story about the inner life of Cromwell which runs in parallel to scenes and pictures that we thought we knew. She works particularly well with witnesses like Cavendish, who are both extremely vivid and slightly unreliable. Such sources enable her to suggest that history, even when witnessed first-hand, can mingle fact and mythology: that gossip, misunderstanding, anecdote and deliberate distortion play a part in the processes of living as well as in the process of recording. So, to take one of umpteen examples, the papers of the Wyatt family record that when Sir Henry Wyatt, father of the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, was imprisoned in the Tower by Richard III he was fed by a cat which brought him a dead pigeon. In Wolf Hall this piece of family mythology becomes a tale that Sir Henry, on the edge of retirement, relates himself, with a rheumy twinkle of unreliability in his eye. A factually implausible anecdote becomes part of the fiction that people make up around their own lives and those of others.

Mantel’s ability to pick out vivid scenes from sources and give them life within her fiction is quite exceptional. The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe relates in sketchy detail, with much acknowledgment that his sources are imperfect, the burning of the Lollard Joan Boughton at Smithfield in 1494. ‘The night following that she was burnt,’ Foxe says, ‘the most part of her ashes were had away of such as had a love unto the doctrine that she died for.’ Mantel takes this incident from a partisan history of the Reformation and makes it into a formative moment in Cromwell’s career. As a boy he helps the gleaners of Joan Boughton’s bones pick up fragments from the slime and mud:

When they had got a bowlful, the woman who was holding it said: ‘Give me your hand.’

Trusting, he held it out to her. She dipped her fingers into the bowl. She placed on the back of his hand a smear of mud and grit, fat and ash. ‘Joan Boughton,’ she said.

Although there is no evidence at all that Cromwell was in Smithfield in 1494 Mantel uses this episode to explain his aversion to religious persecution, and his strong attraction to reformers. But she doesn’t leave it there. Her Cromwell remembers the scene almost as though he had read about it rather than lived it: ‘Now, when he thinks back on this, he wonders at his own faulty memory.’ He can’t quite stitch the vivid passage of Foxe into his own experience: he can’t remember how he got home after witnessing the martyrdom or why he was present at it. He becomes here almost the maker of a historical fiction, whose experiences turn into a string of vividly alive episodes, separate from each other, transformed into visual images.

As well as bringing these quasi-pictorial moments to life and quizzically embedding them in life histories, Mantel is playing another game. Repeatedly, Wolf Hall suggests that no one, apart possibly from Cromwell, can really know what will turn out to be important. Its chief running joke is that people and things which come to be of immense historical significance are within the novel unobserved and peripheral. So Mark Smeaton, the lutenist who was eventually made to confess to adultery with Anne Boleyn, is an unctuous gossipy presence on the edge of several courtly scenes. Anne herself barely notices him or knows his name, but he gets under Cromwell’s skin, and we’re invited to infer that his irritation with Smeaton is what will eventually lead him to have the lutenist tortured and killed to bring about Anne’s fall.

As with insignificant people, so with insignificant things: objects that are lost or ignored in Wolf Hall generally come to matter. Mary Boleyn loses her book of love poems, and then remembers that her cousin Mary Shelton has it. This book of poems is presumably what is now known as the Devonshire Manuscript, the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and of the literary activities of early 16th-century women. The novel immerses itself in the present moment (it is related throughout in the present tense) and by doing so implies that history is a matter of tiny things becoming major things, of events or people apparently on the edges turning out in entirely unpredictable ways to be central. Its title exemplifies this principle. Wolf Hall was the house of the Seymour family. Jane Seymour, who in the novel is an inconspicuous attendant of the new queen, and one whom Cromwell quite fancies for himself, was the woman for whom Henry VIII set aside Anne Boleyn. No scene in the novel is set at Wolf Hall, which is mentioned only parenthetically as a place notorious for sexual decadence. It’s not until the final page that Cromwell works out the king’s itinerary for the next few weeks, which happens to include a stay at Wolf Hall, and will, in the longer scheme of things, prove to be the undoing of Anne Boleyn. It is not the acidic and petulant Anne who ultimately matters, but the almost invisible (and in the early part of the novel unnamed) Jane Seymour. And in Anne’s ginger-haired baby daughter we meet the most powerful of the novel’s many miniature and apparently minor females, the future Queen Elizabeth I: ‘Ginger bristles poke from beneath her cap, and her eyes are vigilant; he has never seen an infant in the crib look so ready to take offence.’ That description occurs in one of the many exceptionally vivid scenes set in interior spaces dominated by female characters. Mantel makes Tudor society a place in which little women matter.

The downside of this valuation of the marginal and the female is that Mantel is resistant to historical winners and saints. She gives us a wonderfully convivial and knowing Wolsey, but Thomas More she really can’t stick. His household is of course one of the greatest tableaux vivants of the period. The group portrait by Hans Holbein (of which only a sketch and a copy survive) sets More among a roomful of women readers, a setting which might have charmed Mantel. But when she brings that picture to life she suggests that Holbein faked it. 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). Here Mantel’s revisionary eye seems cruel, or to have missed something. Her Wolsey has an instinctive ability to see into events and into people, and has wit and warmth. Her More is a stubborn old Catholic sexist.

The portrait of Cromwell is the real test of the book, however. If it’s set beside the best 20th-century literary representation of the privy seal – Ford Madox Ford’s The Fifth Queen of just over a century ago (1906-8) – there are immediate contrasts. Ford’s portrait was shaped by R.B. Merriman’s Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell (1902), which represented him as a man who worshipped ‘the practical and the useful only, and utterly disregarded everything else’. It was also shaded by Ford’s erratically maintained Catholicism. Ford’s Cromwell was the arch-manipulator of men and the destroyer of faiths; Mantel’s is a sensitive paradox, younger and gentler than Ford’s hardened nasty, genuinely though secretly evangelical, and able to use his charm to persuade people to do things they do not want to do. He is also an enigma to himself: ‘I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?’ In representing this enigma, Mantel sometimes creates discord rather than creative counterpoint with the historical record. Cromwell’s conversations with the Lady Mary (formerly Princess Mary and the future Queen Mary I), for example, are gently persuasive, kindly wheedling, wooing almost, as he urges her to accept that Anne Boleyn is now queen. He is the only person who appreciates the importance of this particular little woman. He even prompts his disappointing son Gregory to wonder what would happen if the king and Anne Boleyn died, and to recognise that Mary might one day be queen. Cromwell’s sensitivity here is a beautifully worked falsehood. His only surviving letter to Mary is extremely mutilated, but its legible phrases read like fragments of a lecture by an overbearing uncle to a disobedient child: ‘to obey to his pleasure . . . unnatural and most obstinate’.

But with Cromwell as with her other characters, Mantel excels when the historical record is uncertain or contradictory. She does not attempt to re-create the lost years of his teens and twenties. Instead she jumps directly from Cromwell the battered child to Cromwell the agent of Wolsey. The rumours about what he got up to in the meantime (travels in Italy, years as a merchant, periods as a soldier) feed back into the mystique of the king’s secretary. He is said to know how to twist a knife so as to kill a man silently; he has any number of languages; he can spot at once that Thomas More has spent far too much on an inferior carpet, and can judge the cost of Wolsey’s natty outfits to the shilling. The gaps in the records of Cromwell’s life are really useful to Mantel: rumours about his early actions are used to develop his reputation as a murderer and a fixer, and his wide but uncertain repertoire of early experiences enables her to endow him with an almost preternatural intuition and knowingness.

The principal subject of the novel is Cromwell’s long slow toughening – a toughening comically paralleled in the subplot of a kitten called Marlinspike who was given to Cromwell by Wolsey and who by the end of the novel runs feral. Cromwell becomes the man who helps the king perform judicial murders, but who really thinks of himself as a bit of a kitten. His transformation is finally marked by the most artful of Mantel’s descriptions of a painting from the period. When Cromwell is at the height of his influence, Holbein delivers to him the famous portrait now in the Frick, which shows Cromwell as a puffy-faced calculator in black. When he looks at this image of himself Cromwell sees for a moment what he has become, and how he might seem to those who look at the representations he leaves behind:

He turns to the painting. ‘I fear Mark was right.’

‘Who is Mark?’

‘A silly little boy who runs after George Boleyn. I once heard him say I looked like a murderer.’

  Gregory says: ‘Did you not know?’

The pleasures offered by Wolf Hall are substantial and deep: that finely turned humour – Cromwell still thinks he’s the nice guy, and Mark Smeaton is still a nobody whom nobody but Cromwell notices – enables well-known pictures of the period to come to life and speak in curious accents. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a gripping mind, always one step ahead of a conversation, always thinking, always feeling. But after a while you wonder whether a Cromwell who felt so deeply could actually have engineered the royal divorce, the dissolution of the monasteries, the English Reformation: ‘He thinks about Putney. He thinks about Walter. He thinks about the jittery sidestep of a skittish horse, the smell of the brewery . . . His suppressed grief becomes anger. But what can he do with anger? It also must be suppressed.’ The time here spent suppressing emotion was probably spent by the historical Cromwell in suppressing a debt or a monastery, or drafting a deed. At one point the crusty Duke of Norfolk cries to Cromwell: ‘Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a . . . person?’ Wolf Hall certainly makes Cromwell a person, and a fascinating one; but it also makes him a little too much of a person. The Duke of Norfolk probably gets the historical Cromwell more or less right: ‘“You . . . person,” he says; and again, “you nobody from Hell, you whore-spawn, you cluster of evil, you lawyer.”’