Monday, February 8, 2016

Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”

Last fall, while on vacation in London, we tried and failed to get tickets to the London theater production of “Wolf Hall,” starring Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII and Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. The play moved on to Broadway in New York with the same cast, and was staged in two parts. And then the BBC mini-series, starring Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance, aired on PBS (the trailer is below).

It was a wonderful production. I was inspired enough to read Tudors by Peter Ackroyd, the second volume in his History of England.

The plays and television program are based on the novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the well-known U.K. novelist. It is the first book of a trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose to power in Tudor England, to become second only to Henry VIII himself. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, won the prize in 2012. The third has not yet been published.

Thomas Cromwell was, at first glance, an unlikely candidate for career promotion. In Mantel’s story, he flees England at little more than 12 to escape a drunken brute of a father. He serves in the French army, eventually finds himself in Italy and connecting to the banking families. He finds his way to Antwerp, where he becomes a merchant. And then he returns to England, becoming part of that rising merchant class and London business class that was helping England break out of its medieval history into more modern times. He becomes a trusted advisor to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor in Henry VIII’s England. That is the backdrop to Wolf Hall.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (1536)    
That is the backdrop, yes, but not the story. The story is the intertwining of two stories powerful enough to stand alone but together the kind of event that changes nations – the royal succession, or Henry VIII’s obsession to produce a male heir to the throne, and the Protestant Reformation. As Cardinal Wolsey eventually fails to convince Pope Clement to annul Henry’s marriage to Katharine of Spain, he finds himself losing his offices, forced to leave London, and living in internal exile. Eventually he is facing arrest and execution – the powerful dukes and the Boleyn family want his head (not to mention his wealth).

The only Wolsey man to stand true to the cardinal in his troubles is Thomas Cromwell – and that is what ultimately commends itself to Henry VIII. Cromwell begins to work for the king, and his successes for Henry begin to propel him upward. He becomes the stage manager to allow Henry to put aside Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn – and it is a production involving church, foreign kings, Parliament, nobles, merchants and businessmen.

Hilary Mantel
Mantel paints each scene with rich, historic detail. The world of the Tudors comes alive. The people who populated that world – from Henry VIII to servants and priests – become three-dimensional people. Cromwell is relentless for the king, but he also has a heart, and tries to find ways to help people escape some of the worst consequences they face. People like Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor after Wolsey whom Mantel paints in a very different way than the saintly Thomas More of the 1966 Oscar-winning movie A Man for All Seasons.

Wolf Hall is a marvelous novel, so good that one soon forgets he’s reading fiction because this must be exactly the way all that Tudor history happened, right?

The writing, the story, the characterization, the plot -- they're all that good. This is historical fiction at its well-researched best.

Painting (top): Thomas Cromwell, oil and tempera on oak panel by Hans Holbein (1532-1534). National Portrait Gallery, London.

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