Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, superbly adapted for television, is brilliant because it defies easy definition
The phenomenal, and to all who loved her early work, overdue success of Hilary Mantel, and the BBC’s superb dramatisation of her Tudor novels, have left pundits scrambling to stuff her art into pigeonholes.
Catholic critics, including the Editor of this magazine in the Sunday Times, refight the Reformation by accusing her of producing a modern version of the old patriotic Protestant history; a fictionalised verion of Our Island Story. And it is true that Mantel’s Thomas More is a twisted sadomasochist who tortures and executes Protestants, rather than the exemplary Renaissance humanist of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. But then no honest writer or historian can follow Bolt’s airbrushing of More’s heretic-hunting, and Mantel, for all her inventive gifts, is a stickler for historical accuracy.
Her Cromwell is not quite a hero. Mantel keeps him at a distance by writing about him in the third person. But Catholic writers have a half point when they say we see events through his eyes, just as we see the French Revolution in her novel A Place of Greater Safety through the eyes of Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre rather than the eyes of the revolution’s victims. But you need to be a religious propagandist yourself to believe that her choice of point of view makes Mantel’s work propaganda.
Equally hopeless in my view are the political commentators who have mused on the strangeness of the public’s appreciation of Wolf Hall. We are supposedly sick of manipulative fixers. Yet we warm to her Cromwell. Perhaps secretly we admire the Osbornes and the Mandelsons, despite all our protestations to the contrary. At least they get things done.
If you want, you can find something in their argument too, and agree that Mantel relishes the brutal realities of politics.
Peter Straughan’s script for the BBC is a masterpiece. He compresses two long novels into a mere six hours of television, without ever cluttering the screen or hurrying the pace. I’ll watch the series again just to try to work out how he did it. Straughan, like Mantel, does indeed show Cromwell as an operator. When the director Peter Kosminsky turns his camera on him at court, Mark Rylance’s Cromwell never lets his feelings show. His face is the mask of the imperturbable bureaucrat, until the moment he is sure his back is covered and he can let rip with the withering voice of a man of power.
But to think that Mantel is just praising or dissecting a practical politician is as simple-minded as thinking she is just updating Protestant patriotism. The screamingly obvious fact about her great historical novels is that she is drawn to revolution. Her glory as a writer is that she shows better than any novelist I know how fast the old certainties can vanish; how events historians will write hundreds of millions of words about happen in a shorter time than it takes a historian to write an academic paper. One minute you must subscribe to the rules of Catholic England or Bourbon France to prosper or just survive, the next they are gone, and there is no going back.
Mantel once said of the working-class matriarchs, who dominated her—Catholic—childhood, “They’d been nowhere but they’d seen everything.” You could say the same of her. Mantel understands hope, ambition, envy and, unusually for a woman writer, male sexual desire, but her writing draws its power not only from her startling imagery or her cool observation of her characters, but from her ability to heighten familiar emotions in the furnace of revolution.
The jealousies and flirtations of Anne Boleyn and her ladies-in-waiting become evidence that will secure her execution when Henry VIII needs Cromwell to find a reason to be rid of her. Revolutionary times allow Cromwell and Robespierre to turn their grudges and insecurities into reasons to murder.
The view of Wolf Hall as simple-minded anti-Catholicism or a mere examination of everyday political chicanery fails to see her in the round because, above all else, Mantel understands the elation and despair of revolution.
In A Place of Greater Safety, the young Camille Desmoulins is caught eavesdropping on a conversation between his father and the Prince of Condé on the possibility of revolution coming to France. The prince isn’t angry. He kindly asks the boy how he stayed still and silent for so long. His friendliness isn’t reciprocated.
“Perhaps you froze my blood,” Camille said. He looked the Prince up and down, like a hangman taking his measurements. “Of course there will be a revolution,” he said. “You are making a nation of Cromwells. But we can go beyond Cromwell, I hope. In fifteen years you tyrants and parasites will be gone. We shall have set up a republic, on the purest Roman model.”
Desmoulins does not build a pure republic. His revolution ends in tyranny, and Desmoulins ends on the steps to the guillotine with his comrades urging him to pull himself together and not give the mob the satisfaction of seeing him cry.
In Wolf Hall, Cromwell delights in his master Henry VIII. Anything seems possible as long as he has the king’s ear.
You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing. He admires Henry more and more. Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade. Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move.
As Cromwell gathers more power, he dreams he can turn England into an industrious Protestant nation where the poor are put to work, good folk read the Bible in English and merchants prosper. Yet all his power and hopes depend on the nearest England has had to a Stalin. The violence he needs to fulfil his ambitions will destroy him as surely as it will destroy the French revolutionaries. Henry VIII’s ministers, wives and nobles find, as the Bolsheviks were to find, that the most dangerous place in the world is the seat next to a tyrant.
Damian Lewis’s Henry is charming, charismatic and boyish. He looks as if he barely cares for power, until the moment his eyes narrow and he pulls Cromwell close. He must have what he wants, and if he does not get it someone must pay. Eventually that someone will be Cromwell.