Wolf Hall is the home of Jane Seymour and Hilary Mantel’s marvellous new novel is set in Tudor England. This sits oddly well with her distinctive talents. “The past is another country” and Hilary Mantel’s fiction thrives in strange lands.
Her novels tread the quicksands on the borders between the explored and the unknown, the stated and the incommunicable. She is brilliant at describing the disorientation of exile, whether in Saudi Arabia or Africa. She is fascinated by the edges of that undiscovered country from whose bourne travellers are, in her fiction, all too apt to return: Fludd begins with the raising of Lazarus, and some singularly unpleasant manifestations have a return ticket in Beyond Black. And her autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, explores the border between past and present.
Her first fiction, A Place of Greater Safety, was another enormous and enormously well-researched historical novel, set in the French Revolution. It was rejected by publishers. One can see why. Though it is a work of disconcerting genius, it is as strange an historical novel as Giving Up the Ghost is a peculiar autobiography. Each denies the reader the sentimental satisfactions of retrospection – the safe gap between past and present that allows unthreatening nostalgia and the fulfilment of serene understanding.
A Place of Greater Safety was set when places of safety (and even times for safe retrospection or self-knowledge) prove infinitely fragile. Even character seems strung in moments of scattered insight across a violent and chaotic void. Wolf Hall turns to an English revolution: the years when Henry VIII broke with Rome.
Mantel’s choice of hero in these turbulent times is wonderfully unexpected: not, as one might expect from the title, Jane Seymour, but the arch-fixer Thomas Cromwell. As Mantel presents him, he is both solid and fleeting – both well-fleshed and characterised, and convincingly unknowable.
Cromwell is an outsider. He is the son of drunken, violent blacksmith and the novel begins with Walter Cromwell kicking his son almost to death in Putney. The narrative then leaps 27 years, to a time when Thomas Cromwell is “a little over forty years old”. The missing years, which have made him what he is, remain a mystery; but there are hints of a secret that Cromwell keeps locked away even from himself.
He has emerged into middle age as a sober businessman with all the fascinating attributes of a master spy. He has an extraordinary range of abilities and skills: he is “at home in courtroom and waterfront, bishop’s palace and yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” He knows the entire New Testament in Latin, and exactly how to stab to kill; he can draw out the membrane blinding a hound’s eye with a steady hand and a curved needle. He is usually three jumps ahead of his powerful enemies, though we know how his tale will end.
Mantel emphasises the kindness of this ruthlessly ambitious self-made man. He is loyal even in misfortune to his master, Wolsey; though of course this may also be to his advantage – disloyal servants, like spies, become unemployable. He is generous to his household. He marries for advantage, but loves his wife and children. The sudden deaths of his wife and daughters are an unsentimentally heart-wrenching evocation of absolute and blank loss. Acts of God, in Mantel’s world, are as shocking as the whims of tyrants or the brutality of the mob.
Most of the characters in Wolf Hall are revealed in moments of glancing ambiguity. Anne Boleyn may seem unambiguously on the make, sharp-tongued and vindictive, with black eyes “like the beads of an abacus…shiny and always in motion, as she makes calculations of her own advantage”. Yet even she surprises us with pity, when she yearns in unaffected “infatuation” towards her screeching new-born baby, only to see the infant plucked up and swept away from her by ladies-in-waiting. Another lost child…
Jane Seymour briefly slides through the pages, whey-faced, shy – or is she sly? She has been planted in Anne’s household by the Seymour family (who have their own dark secret), partly as a hedging bet for future favours, partly as a spy; and “her eyes are the colour of water, where her thoughts slip past, like gilded fishes too small for hook or net.”
This is history and character left properly complicated, unresolved. The protagonists each have their own versions of England’s past, warped by family myth and prejudice, or dangerously rootless; and their knowledge of the affairs of the present is a tangled skein of salacious conjecture and malicious gossip. Who knows what the truth is about the relationship between Anne and the King? Cromwell, better informed than most, thinks he knows how they look at each other: “For a second he understands it. Then he doesn’t.”
Mantel is a thoroughly modern novelist; yet she is in many ways ideally suited to writing a historical novel. Her fiction is always skewed, genuinely strange, wittily out of kilter with the present-day world. The otherness of the past presents no difficulties for her: she neither strains to make it relevant, nor labours to show its distance from us: she is a novelist who knows what it is to feel foreign from herself. Wisely, she avoids any attempt to imitate Tudor English. Even authors who are exceptionally good at it, like Peter Ackroyd, run into difficulties, since the brilliance of their performance deflects attention onto the pastiche.
As for the issues of the time, Mantel conveys them with subtlety and sympathetic passion. She shows that the motives and loyalties of all sides are impure, complex. Those in favour of the King’s divorce are not, or are not solely, men seeking to curry favour by humouring the lustful whims of an absolute ruler. All know the price that will be paid – in blood, shed by untold numbers of Englishmen, both in civil war and against foreign powers – if the King does not provide the stability offered by a legitimate male heir. The first Queen’s barrenness will smite all the nation, with the force of a curse from God, which it was believed to be. Cromwell may be the hero; but Mantel balances him with an unforgettable portrait of Katherine of Aragon, for whom, as so often in Mantel’s fiction, a missing child is the core of tragedy.