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wolf hall

3 june 2020

I wanted to wait to start reading Hilary Mantel's 1,693-page trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII till the final volume was published: otherwise, while I was waiting to read The Mirror and the Light, I would surely have forgotten everything that went on in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Once I started the trilogy, I wasn't sure at first whether I should wait till the end to review the whole thing, or go book by book. First volumes of trilogies necessarily can be embarked on in a vacuum, but do second and third volumes ever make much sense as independent works?

As soon as I swung into Bring Up the Bodies, I had my answer. Mantel does briefly orient a reader who might come to the second volume first, but otherwise, it's as if there's barely a chapter break after the end of Wolf Hall. This is, essentially, one very, very long novel, and it is eminently worth reading at a single "go." If not a single sitting. That would not be good for the circulation.

The trilogy is told consistently from Cromwell's point of view. He might as well be a first-person narrator, but technically Cromwell is a "reflector" in an extremely-limited, third-person-perspective narration. In Wolf Hall the narrator is mostly just "he," which can cause ID problems when there's a scene with half-a-dozen men in a room. In the latter two volumes "he" becomes "He, Cromwell," and then "He, Lord Cromwell," and "He, Lord Privy Seal" and "He, the Earl of Essex." This gets annoying, but if it's the worst thing one can say about a 1,693-page novel, it's a pretty good novel.

Cromwell starts as a likable character. Victim of his father's bullying as he grows up, he, Cromwell, becomes a gentle family man who abhors the torture that characterizes 16th-century statecraft. Cromwell rises in the world from Thames-valley blacksmith's son to wandering soldier of fortune to merchant to statesman, thanks to well-placed loyalties: to the Frescobaldis of Florence, to Cardinal Wolsey, to Henry VIII.

His foil, for a long time, is Thomas More, the saturnine saint who flanks a mantelpiece, across from Cromwell in New York's Frick Collection, where Hans Holbein's paintings of both now hang. More, erudite and sanctimonious, delights in torturing anyone who stands in the way of his particular flavor of Catholicism. Despite genuine affection and respect for More, Cromwell has no truck with torture, and he can't feel too sorry when More falls afoul of Henry's desire for independence from Rome.

Cromwell takes over More's role as proto-Prime-Minister to the Tudor regime, a role that had once been Wolsey's. But as soon as he does, there are queens to be shed, heretics to be burned, and rebels to be drawn and quartered. How can treason be detected without torture? But Cromwell never does torture anyone. He simply threatens to, in the process scaring the living wits out of his victims. At that psychological pass, how does the technical avoidance of physical torture remain a virtue?

One sharp achievement of the trilogy, then, is to get us strongly attached to its protagonist; and then, when we're in too far, to get us identifying with him even as he comes to embody the arrogance of Wolsey and the cruelty of More. But can any minister to an absolute monarch remain admirable? Despite the power of Parliament and the nobility, Henry VIII is never accountable to anyone. He reigns by whim, having the property of self-pity without the power of self-criticism. The nature of one-man rule, coupled with the elaborate formalities surrounding the royal person, mean that the sovereign himself can't micromanage England. Instead, a succession of individuals channel the power of the king through their own one-man ministries. And absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.

One might of course ask, do we need yet another historical fiction about the British royal family? Are the rulers of those islands so fascinating, that so much of our capacity for reading history and humanity itself has to be filtered through Plantagenets and Tudors and Stuarts and Windsors? Apparently, yes, and particularly if English is your native language, no matter where in the world you hail from. But even if you're tired of regal soap operas, I will say that Wolf Hall is one of the very best of them.

Bring Up the Bodies is, like most second parts of trilogies, largely a bridge between the first and the third. But that assessment may be tinged by hindsight. Wolf Hall and Bodies worked well as basically the two halves of the miniseries version, charting the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. And Bring Up the Bodies also has the most focused and suspenseful narrative of the three volumes. It covers roughly the same material as Donizetti's opera Anna Bolena, so of course I had to stream a video of Donizetti as I was reading Mantel.

I picked the Wiener Staatsoper production from 2011, with Anna Netrebko as her doomed namesake and Elina Garanca as incoming queen Jane Seymour (whose ancestral home Wolf Hall gives its name to Mantel's first volume and to the miniseries). There's nothing like a prima donna assoluta and a ravishing mezzo-soprano singing daggers at each other to enliven an evening in the theater, or a few discontinuous hours attached to your laptop by earbuds.

Anne Boleyn's story is simply operatic. Every scene provides Donizetti with two or more characters at cross purposes, with stored up crushes or hatreds, with awful fates looming before them. History plays work in part because, pace the occasional Tarantino film, the characters are locked into outcomes. Anne is never going to die in bed at age 80 surrounded by loving royal grandchildren. Emma Bovary or the Flying Dutchman, at first view, could go either way. Even experienced for the Nth time, with all the inevitability of their doom hanging over them, you still know that Flaubert or Wagner had the option to steer things differently. Choose history, though, and you choose to have no choice.

The third major character in Anna Bolena is Mark Smeaton, the young musician sent to his death for consorting with the queen. Mantel introduces Smeaton early and builds carefully toward his fate, too, but in the Wolf Hall novels, Smeaton may be guilty of nothing more than frivolity and a careless tongue. In Donizetti, Smeaton is a breeches role sung by yet another soprano. And he really is deeply in love with Anna, though his attempts to exonerate her just lead her more directly to the scaffold.

A great deal is known about the personalities and even the day-to-day doings of the court of Henry VIII, but what exactly went on at the trial of Anne Boleyn is lost to history, the records suppressed or purged at some point. Donizetti makes the whole thing a love polygon. In Bring Up the Bodies, nobody really seems to be in love with Anne except Anne herself. Her co-conspirators are arguably completely innocent. Their real crime was to have mocked Cardinal Wolsey, becoming the target of Thomas Cromwell's implacable vengeance.

Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Holt, 2009. PR 6063 .A438W65

Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Holt, 2012. PR 6063 .A438B75

The Mirror & the Light. New York: Holt [Macmillan], 2020. PR 6063 .A438M36