'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Out The Bodies.'

By Hilary Mantel

          Wolf Hall’ and 'Bring Up The Bodies', by Hilary Mantel hardly need my tin whistle to pipe their praise; but I’m going to toot anyway because there are no other books I want to praise so much.

          I downloaded Wolf Hall to my kindle at the end of May, and there it sat, until the end of July.  I’d heard rumours that it was good, but, well – it was about Tudor politics and Anne Boleyn.  I’d been there before.  Besides, wasn’t it written in the present tense?  I’d read other things in that tense and been dismayed by their clumsiness.
          But from the moment I started Wolf Hall, I was away with Thomas Cromwell.
          Now, I’m a hardened reader.  This makes me difficult to please.  I realise that most of the time I read with a commentary going on at the back of my mind: ‘I’d change that word; I’d cut that; I’d rewrite that sentence; I don’t think that character would do that…’
          I realise this because, while I engulfed Wolf Hall, this commentary was silent.  Mantel’s writing is effortless, beautiful, expert.  I questioned nothing.
          I experienced that pleasure which is quite rare for me these days – the hankering for a book and its world.  I was always eager to get back to it.  I often clicked back a few pages to read a passage again, simply because it was so beautiful. When I saw from the bar at the bottom of the kindle page that the end was close, I rationed my reading, to make it last.
          The moment I finished Wolf Hall, I clicked through to the kindle store and downloaded Bring Up The Bodies It was every bit as good.

         We are promised a third book – at the end of which Cromwell, presumably, will get it in the neck.  I bite my nails.  Why didn’t I wait until the third was published, and then I could have read all of them, one after another?

         When I think of Mantel’s achievement with these books, I am awed.  First, the research.  I faint in coils at the thought of the reading necessary to amass such detail of social manners, clothing, furnishing, politics, religious schisms, climate, and the hullaballoo of daily life in the early 1500s.

          But then, to pluck from all that only the few details she needs: and nothing more.
          A biography would have taken no more research – and Mantel goes beyond that.  She fictionalises it all: which means she dresses in the facts, goes inside them and recreates Cromwell from the inside – and every scene he takes part in.  Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Moore, Cramner – we see, hear and understand all of them as Thomas Cromwell sees, hears and understands them.  We see the countryside, feel its cold and damp, its warm summer days.  We smell the stinks of the streets, the perfume of spices, we witness executions… It is all completely convincing and absorbing, and the amount of thought, concentration, imagining, rewriting and sheer hard work this represents is heroic.
          But more still.  The prose is beautiful.  Its cadences slide through your mind like silk, until some sharp point purposely sticks you like a hidden needle.  Words are worked.  Why is the book called Wolf Hall? Because the family seat of Jane Seymour is called ‘Wolf Hall.’   Not a single scene is set there, but we are directed, ironically, to Anne Boleyn’s downfall even at the time of her greatest triumph.
          Also, men are wolves to men’, and these aristocrats, within whose orbit Cromwell finds himself, are those very wolves: murdering for their own political advantage and selling their daughters.
          Bring Up The Bodies  famously opens with Cromwell hunting, with birds named after his own, dead, daughters.  His children are falling from the sky… each with a blood-filled gaze… Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws…These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated.  Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air.  They pity no one… When they look down they see nothing but their prey… they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.’
          This reminds us of the family Cromwell mourns: but is also the world-view of the people for whom he works.  It is possibly the view of Cromwell himself.  It’s even, possibly, the view of the dead, and of God, who has gathered them to Himself.  (And although I have severely trimmed the above quote, the beauty of the prose, its lovely rhythms, survives.)
          The book is far from what I half-feared: another trot through Tudor history, as made familiar by many romantic novels and television series. This Anne Boleyn is no romantic heroine, no damsel in distress. She is sharp as a knife, intelligent, relentlessly calculating and self-interested.  After all, look at the family she came from and her upbringing.          Her brother, George, is a spoiled, self-regarding, nasty little ****.  Mantel even suggests that the incest charge may not have been the trumpery most accounts assume it was.  Anne and George Boleyn were reared apart, hardly meeting before adulthood, and siblings today who meet only as adults often feel a powerful erotic attraction.  And Anne was desperate for a son, the only thing that would maintain her position, while George was desperate to maintain his position as the king's brother-in-law.
          Mantel’s Thomas Moore is not saintly, but a vain, self-centred man who makes a pet of one daughter, while routinely insulting the others and his wife.  His urbane manner masks a furious hatred of anyone who dares to understand God other than as Moore does.  The only good Protestant is a dead, burned one.
          It's Cromwell who is usually portrayed as ruthless and brutal, even if intelligent and talented.  Mantel makes him a humorous, compassionate man, whose wide-ranging life and enquiring intelligence have given him vast experience and knowledge, together with a sharp insight into the nature and motives of others.  This enables him to out-play them in the Tudor court’s lethal political chess games.
          His violent, neglectful childhood has made him sympathetic to the poor and abandoned.  Large numbers of the poor are fed from his kitchens every day while his house is full of orphans and apprentices, who flourish in his care.  Mantel gives him a dry, dead-pan wit, and makes him loveable.
          He is also ruthless, when required, and vengeful.  He sees himself as a man who has a job to do, with the tools available.  Politics as the art of the possible.
          But if he can spare somebody’s life, he will; and he considers that, despite his deep dislike of the man, he gave Moore every chance to evade the death sentence.  It was Moore’s own obstinate insistence on being right that saw him executed.
           If it’s not possible to do the job without a death, then Cromwell will ensure that the scaffold is erected in time and the straw spread to soak up the blood, before returning to his loving household and dogs.
          Is this a truthful representation of Cromwell, or of the other historical personages?  Who knows?  Mantel herself says that she offers her books as one possible interpretation of the facts.  The books read almost as an illustration of the truth that we can never fully understand other people.  We can observe what they do, and what they say, but when we try to deduce, from these observations, their thoughts and emotions, all we can do is make an interpretation, filtered through our own emotions, thoughts and experience.  It may be accurate, or wildly inaccurate, but we will never know which.
          And people change.  It may be that the books offer Cromwell’s own interpretation of himself – a good guy really, despite all he’s done.  We all put the best possible spin on ourselves.  I think there are hints, towards the end of Bring Up The Bodies  that Cromwell’s good-guy self-image is faltering – another reason why I look forward keenly to the third book.
          I read one review of Wolf Hall which began, ‘I hesitate to use the word ‘masterpiece’…’
          Well, I refuse to use the word, ‘masterpiece.’  These books are by a Mistress: in short, works in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language."