Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Success story

Hilary Mantel brings the strangely familiar world of Tudor England to life in her latest historical novel.

The following review was published earlier this week at the books page of the History News Network.

Americans are prone to believe that they invented upward mobility. They assume people in other times and nations were products of class-bound societies in which everyone knew their place, whether or not they were happy with it. Attempts to overthrow that order, like the French or Russian Revolutions, backfired in the short run and only partially succeeded at best in the long one. The American Dream of upward mobility -- one instantly understood in shorthand references to Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Horatio Alger -- is considered the fruit of American exceptionalism. "Only in America ..." the unfinished expression goes.

But this notion is false. Poor boys (and, very occasionally, poor girls) have been making good at least since the time of the Confucian civil service. And while social orders hav
e tended to be fixed, they were not always immutable, as stories of those from Cicero to Genghis Khan make clear. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is a novel that takes a series of liberties with the life of the sixteenth century English statesman Thomas Cromwell. But at the core of this tale -- a man of modest means fashioning a nation-state in the face of an aristocracy that hates him for it -- is both factual and true.

For students of English history, Cromwell is a familiar figure. But Mantel casts him in an unfamiliar light. Usually rendered as a peripheral figure in the saga of the six wives of Henry VIII, Cromwell's role is that of the political fixer who executes the displacement of Katherine of Aragon and enables the King to marry Anne Boleyn as part of a quest to produce a male heir to the Tudor line. As it turns out, Boleyn gives birth to a girl, the future Queen Elizabeth. When the mercurial Henry dumps her in favor of Jane Seymour (a development only hinted at in the novel, whose title refers to a Seymour estate), Cromwell paves the way for that transition as well. A protege of the powerful Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose fall from power occupies the first half of the novel, Cromwell is typically portrayed as a hatchet man, particularly in his subsequent struggle with Thomas More, the celebrated "man for all seasons" in the 1966 movie of the same name in which More is depicted as a martyr who resisted the opportunistic creation of the Church of England as means of both allowing the king to divorce at will as well as confiscate the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. In Wolf Hall, however, it's Cromwell who's the hero, a wily pragmatist who skillfully navigates the murderous shoals of religion and politics and steers England to safety.

In Mantel's telling, Cromwell's ability to serve this function is rooted in his background as the child of an abusive alcoholic blacksmith who runs away from home and has a series of (offstage) adventures that include soldiering, banking, and working in the wool trade on the continent. Cromwell eventually becomes a lawyer, but never loses this sense of versatility; as she explains, he's a man who can "draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house, and fix a jury." Multilingual and exceptionally entrepreneurial,
Cromwell regards the mounting fury of the Reformation with detachment, if not distaste: to him both the Catholic More and the Lutheran biblical translator William Tyndale are equally blind to human realities that range from spirituality to personal relationships. Recognizing that power is at least as much a matter of not coercing people when you have the power to do so as it is punishing them, he constructs ingenious webs of literal as well as figurative indebtedness that have the effect of reinforcing his indispensability. The quality that rounds out and deepens his character is a sly wit that's all the more satisfying for its judiciousness. When the prone-to-tantrum Henry wonders aloud why he's had a troubling dream about his long dead brother and asks "Why does he come back now?" Cromwell bites back the temptation to say "because you are forty and he is telling you to grow up" before putting a soothsaying spin on the dream.

Part of what makes Wolf Hall so effective is the way in which it both evokes a lost world and anticipates a modern one. This Janus-faced quality extends to its political subtext. Disgusted with the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, Cromwell fashions a pragmatic Protestant state for England whose legitimacy rests less on doctrine than a perception of credibility. "These people want a good authority, one they can properly obey," he tells the Archbishop of Canterbury. "For centuries Rome has asked them to believe what only children can believe. Surely they will find it more natural to obey an English king, who will exercise his powers under Parliament and under God." In one sense, sentiments like these seem retrograde; they are condescendingly paternalistic, if not authoritarian in their emphasis on the deference of the people. And yet in their concern for a legitimate basis for political authority, they also seem to prefigure the logic of the American Revolution 250 years later. Mantel's Cromwell is a prescient patriot, a founding father of the modern nation-state.

Like Hans Holbein, who makes a cameo appearance here, Mantel, who has also authored novels with eighteenth century settings, paints an arresting portrait. But is it an accurate one? As a non-expert on Tudor England, it's hard for me to say. But the eminent Renaissance England literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, writing an approving review of Wolf Hall in the New York Review of Books, makes clear that Cromwell was a ruthless, and at times less than wholly honest, enforcer of royal power. Perhaps a more telling indication of Mantel's desire to place her subject in a glowing light is the time frame of the novel, which ends with Cromwell asceding to the apex of his power. In fact, he would experience a spectacularly rapid fall from grace that would result in his execution a mere five years after the events depicted in the novel, events that will apparently be the focus of a sequel. But the mere fact of the cadence suggests a desire to savor; indeed, any adult reading this book knows implicitly that glory of any kind is fleeting. Some of the most moving passages in the book deal with the unexpected deaths of Cromwell's loved ones; a closing image of the book is that of a shape-shifting English landscape, "her cliffs eroding, her sandbanks drifting, springs bubbling up in the dead ground. They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move, and even the histories that trail us; the faces of the dead fade into other faces, as a spine of hills into the mist."

I will confess to some impatience with Wolf Hall. There are a lot of characters to keep track of; I was consulting the tables in the front matter to the very end, and Mantel has an annoying habit of using the pronoun "he" to refer to Cromwell in ways that can be confusing. It's a long book in which the narrative energy flags. But there's something magnificently luxuriant about its evocation of the past that makes it well worth an extended visit. You finish the book amazed and grateful for the strangely familiar world it brings to life.