Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL

For a book that I originally rage-quit after only a chapter or so back when it was first published, Wolf Hall has proven to be pretty much exactly the kind of historical fiction I have most wanted in my life, now that I know the "secret" of its lack of dialog tags and highly unorthodox pronounery. That secret being that about 98% of the time, the "he" and "him" pronouns, regardless of the context clues surrounding them, are meant to refer always and only to Thomas Cromwell, blacksmith's son, sometime soldier of fortune, lawyer and courtier to King Henry the Overrated, I mean Eighth, of England.

And yes, of course, it was the BBC TV adaptation that prompted me to give the book another chance, because there is always so much that is interesting and amusing that gets glossed over when cutting things down to a mass-consumption-and-camera-friendly version of a novel. And boy, is there.

Ah, Thomas Cromwell. His very story gives lie to the whole notion of the divine right of kings, of their complete and utter supremacy, of their paramount importance. Junker Heinrich (as Martin Luther referred to Henry VIII) could still order one's head struck off, but it wasn't too hard to avoid that, really, unless, of course, you were married to him and served as extremely public proof that he mostly shot X chromosomes when he didn't shoot blanks, as it were. The others he had beheaded were those who were stubborn about imaginary sky daddy doctrine and/or swore they owed obedience to a different divinely ordained figurehead over in Rome. Smart people were flexible on these points, and kept their heads while they went about the business of actually running the country (well, until they picked the wrong replacement wife, but Cromwell's ultimate fate does not come to bear on this particular novel's narrative), as Cromwell demonstrates mid-narrative in an interview with the deeply silly Henry Percy, who would keep insisting that Henry couldn't marry Anne Boleyn because Anne was already Percy's wife:
How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift West and are burned up in the Sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
In other words, this is the beginning of the end of the rule of inherited authority. The future is for those who work both hard and smart, rather than those who happen to have lucked into the correct noble surname and thus don't work at all unless some peasants or heretics  need killed.

Speaking of killing heretics, OMG, Thomas More. As a girl raised on great old films like A Man for all Seasons, I was more than a bit shocked at his portrayal here; he's pretty much the villain of the piece (but of course, for that matter, Cromwell is usually the villain-or-something-like-one in tales of this period, no?). Seen from Cromwell's perspective, he is a snob, a heartless and often cruel enforcer of orthodoxy, and, most importantly, a man who feels perfectly justified in breaking promises to, lying to, and treatng as sub-human anyone he deems a heretic. Which is pretty much everybody who goes along with Henry VIII's party's program to install Queen 2.0.

Cromwell-the-character, meanwhile, remains, if not exactly compassionate, at least passionate about sparing More a degree of suffering that seems wholly unnecessary. One tiny, practical compromise, saying "some words" and More could go home to a family that loves him, a comfortable estate, a good life overall. More had to earn these things just as Cromwell had to; why doesn't he value them as Cromwell does?

For we see in this portrayal that Cromwell certainly did. Under different circumstances -- his daughters' survival into adulthood, say, which might have filled his house with grandchildren -- he might not have been as willing to rise quite so high as he did? Certainly there is a sort of turning point late in the novel, when the last of his wards/foster children marries a household staffer of his and moves out of Cromwell's house, taking the staffers's children with him, that Cromwell seems very like an empty nester. Might as well become king in all but name...

Ah, but then there are the Boleyns, of course: Sir Thomas, scheming and smooth; George, touchy and annoyed; Mary, pimped out to royalty until she's had enough (really, Mary is a fascinating character here, a survivor who shields herself with amusement and has fun sharing her strategies with Cromwell); Anne, Queen 2.0 whose dark eyes Cromwell imagines as clacking like beads on an abacus. They've a mind to ruling, too, and outnumber him. Fortunately for him, too much of their power rests on Anne's uterus (though, really, it's on Henry's testicles, no?).

Cromwell will have to work much harder than any Boleyn to get himself beheaded. Even harder than More, whose execution ends this first novel (I believe Anne's ends the second, so surely Cromwell's will end the coming third).

And meanwhile, waiting in the wings, is Jane Seymour, of Wolf Hall, a place for which this novel is named but at which no action takes place; we are meant merely, I think, to feel it as a looming presence only. Queen 3.0 is ready.

Monarchy, man...

*Never mind, for now, that these guys turned out to be big jerks, too. Just let me enjoy this moment, mmkay?

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