A Critical Reading of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
“…There is no other medium in which we can live so long and so intimately with a character. That is the service a novel renders. It performs no less an act than the rescue and the preservation of the individuality and dignity of the single being…. No other art, I claim, can so thread in and out of a single mind and body, so live another life.” – William Golding, 208-210.
Indeed, the novel treads a twilight zone. It defi(n)es existence. It represents life—as it is, and as it ought to have been.
It, is an experience extraordinaire.
It is fiction–a world where we would want to escape–and yet it mirrors reality. It enables dead men to live, often in newer garb, it enables power centres to shift, fourth wall to break, peek into the workings of the human mind. It is not merely mimesis, it is the diegesis itself. Time is re-configured. Paradigms are broken. Perspectives are altered. History is re-created.
If so, then, what is history? What defines its relation with fiction? Is it truth? If so then what is truth? Is it their similarities or their differences or both? Is it their frames of reference? Are they contradictory, or complementary?
Questions abound, and answers are myriad, often intersecting, often hardly found…
Some of these questions we seek to address in this paper—with our reading of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Booker-winning novel Wolf Hall. Set in Reformation-era England, Wolf Hall explores the character of Thomas Cromwell and the 16th century power dynamics—unearthing dangerous intimacies between religion and politics. Reconstructing the entire period from the childhood till the rise of Thomas Cromwell; and from the annulment of King Henry’s marriage with Katherine of Aragon, to his love and marriage and eventual disenchantment with Anne Boleyn to a final hint at the shifting winds towards Wolf Hall, Mantel through her fictional work effects a paradigm shift towards the figure of Thomas Cromwell, who has for long remained one of the most hated figures in English European history. Wolf Hall is thus more than a novel; it is a fictionally-created-historical document of the rise and times of Thomas Cromwell, significantly testing the borders between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’.
Till the advent of the twentieth century history was a deferential given. History was a balloon that was to be filled with ‘facts’ to have ‘existence’; existence being a synonym for acceptance. What was accepted was a certain kind of (world)view that adhered to certain stereotypes or ‘types’. These ‘types’, when coloured and contoured by the historian’s intention (imagination ?) came to be established as ‘truth’. As Paul Ricouer writes—
“To reconstruct the indirect connections of history to narrative is finally to bring to light the intentionality of the historian’s thought by which history continues obliquely to intend the field of human action and its basic temporality…Indeed, the inserting of history into action and into life, its capacity for reconfiguring time, brings into play the question of truth in history. This question is inseparable from what I call the interweaving reference between history’s claim to truth and that of fiction” (Ricouer 92)stuti
The historian’s ‘intentionality’ was determined by myriad social, economic, historical and political factors: factors that together formed the power structure and that together with the truths generated the grand narrative of history.
‘Fiction’ on the other hand has long lent credibility to the idea of imagination, (of fiction as) ‘make-belief’. As late as 1968 Frank Kermode wrote in his essay ‘Novel, History and Type’,
“…novels are made up, contain material which differs from the historical explanation in that it is not hypothetical but fictive… they do not have to be so overt about whatever relationship between facts they may be establishing.” (Kermode 231)
“Historians seek their epiphanies in fact, arranging minor events around a central incident, unique but complying with a type. Novelists can dwell more on the situational logic…The historian gets his effects by explanations of which the narrative content is much reduced and by chronological conflations; the novelist does it more freely.” (Kermode 234-236)
[In this paper the terms ‘fiction’ and ‘novel’ will be used synonymously]
However history and fiction do not exist merely in a binary of differences. The two realms have been engaged in a much more intimate, indeterminate and vexatious relationship. Traditionally, the novel has responded ‘symbiotically’ to its socio-political environment—both present and past. As Kermode writes in the same essay–
“There are some obvious ways in which a novel resembles an historical narrative. A narrative is a structure imposed upon events, “grouping some of them together with others, and ruling out some as lacking relevance.” [Danto 132]…The relevance is determined by the interests and knowledge of the maker; it may be part of his business to establish it where it had not been suspected before.” (Kermode 231)
Accordingly, both history and fiction are “…textual constructs, narratives which are both non-originary in their reliance on past intertexts and unavoidably ideologically laden” (Hutcheon 112). They are cultural sign systems, formed by man, relying not only on the past but also the past’s influence on the present, for the purpose of maintaining (retaining) of his power. This power functions in the realm of the ‘truth’ (referred to above, and) which stems from the use of knowledge—from the access and/or inhibition of information. In fact as Foucault says–“Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true” (Foucault 27). Thus with its claims to ‘truth’ history was a panoptic strategy that could silence people and experiences, an idea echoed in the past by Descartes himself, who had said-
“fiction …and even the most faithful histories, if they do not alter or embroider things to make them more worth reading, omit the meanest and least illustrious circumstances, so that the remainder is distorted” (Descartes 4-5).
As in history, so in fiction; there is and has been omission, and suppression of information that has served to sustain not merely the fictional grand narratives but the power structures that uphold them. To highlight this, as well as to underline the indeterminacy of borders between ‘fact’ (that supposedly made up history) and ‘fiction’ we take a slight detour…
In the fourteenth century, there were fictionalized narratives in English, especially in the form of travelogues, for instance Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1375). Such accounts lent credence to the illusion of ‘truth’ in fiction. Late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century writers could pass off ‘fact’ that was liable to scandal as fiction. Likewise fiction was often passed off as ‘fact’ to lend authenticity, as in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Written in the first-person narrative Crusoe offered a simulation of (autobiographical) reality. However, in Fielding and his The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling(1749)there were conscious attempts to define the novel as a separate genre. And yet, Fielding himself defined (his) fiction as a “heroical, historical prosaic poem” (Tom Jones Book IV, 1). As Frank N. Magill writes, “Fielding saw his task as a novelist to be a ‘historian’ of human nature and human events…” (Magill 876). A novelist was thus to be a chronicler of human events. From this we may presuppose there would be a selection of certain events and situations by the ‘historian’ who would subsequently give space to those selected events and situations in his work.
Nineteenth century reader of fiction preferred a narrative where “fiction was history” (Daiches 1049). One of the corollaries of such development was the emergence of the ‘historical novel’ or ‘historical fiction’ in the nineteenth century. In this genre, “…history plays great number of distinctly different roles…in its various manifestations” (Hutcheon 113). History could be individualized’, ‘particularized’, ‘past’ [i.e. passed] or in a continuation with the present in sharing some ‘typical’[typ(e)-ical] values. The protagonist too was a type, “a synthesis of the general and particular” (Hutcheon 113). Such ‘types’ made up historical fidelity and verisimilitude in fiction. In fact, “historical writing and historical novel writing influenced each other mutually (Foley 170-171, Hutcheon 106). Till well into the nineteenth century, “ literature and history were considered branches of the same tree of learning” (Hutcheon 105). They had the same origins. However the two strains flowed increasingly divergently–especially after the German historian Leopold von Ranke’s ideal of “scientific” history. This, in spite of the fact that “the realist novel and Rankean historicism shared many similar beliefs of writing factually about observable reality” as White observed in his 1976 essay “The Fictions of Factual Representation” (Fletcher 25).
However, the advent of the twentieth century brought about a break with both the past and the present…and a consequent denial of history; which in turn released the narrative from spatio-temporal limitations. Power structures crumpled.
And yet the past “cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence” said Eco (Eco 87). Therefore, offering an antithesis of sorts, postmodernism recognized the past, albeit with “with irony, not innocently” (Eco 87). Thus, history was no longer a given, no longer an absolute. No longer absolute, truth too came to be relativized. Spatial and temporal dimensions opened up further, and interacted in a much more myriad way; power structures returned, albeit inverted. Postmodern history came to be seen as what its readers made of it. Every individual had his personal history, each ‘history’ was “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse. [Such] Histories… combine[d] a certain amount of “data”, theoretical concepts for “explaining” these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation as an icon of sets of events presumed to have occurred in times past.” (White, Metahistory , ix). Such histories had “a kind of order and fullness in an account of reality”, turning the past into a story. These stories or narratives had certain qualities—(they had, or have) plots, one or more social centers, they moralize, they are allegories and they have aesthetics. (White, The Content of Form 1-25)
With this, the divergence between history and fiction too came to be challenged. Critical readings increasingly turned their attention towards the similarities between the two realms, rather than their differences. Postmodern deliberations on fiction were increasingly and intricately intertwined with representations of history. Historical and fictional narratives were not only being re-created, history itself was dismantled and reconfigured in fiction.
As Lyotard spoke of an “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv) and also of a “waning of metanarrative power…[due to which] there is the splintering of knowledge…where people can creatively leap from one knowledge domain to another to come up with radically new ideas or theories” (Lane 94) , we saw the rise of genre of historiographic metafiction.
Carrying forward this trajectory of thought, Paul de Man says in his essay ‘Dialogue and Dialogism’—“The binary opposition between fiction and fact is no longer relevant: in any differential system, it is the assertion of the space between the entities that matters” (de Man 106-114). And yet, “historiographic metafiction suggests the continuing relevance of such an opposition, even if it be a problematic one. Such novels both install and blur the line between fiction and history” (Hutcheon 113). Thus, historiographic metafiction, in its questioning and probing of history(historiography) invoked a dialectic, that has no closure, only an infinite deferral that constantly brought out new meanings through interface with generations of readers.
This is also the dialectical tension that we explore in Wolf Hall. Is it history fictionalized? Or fiction historicized? In many ways, in Mantel’s novel, this tension is concentrated in the character of Thomas Cromwell. Postmodern texts sought to give voice to the silenced, the peripheral, the ‘ex-centrics’. And Mantel’s treatment of Thomas Cromwell is an instance of this. A much-hated figure for much of time spaces, since his own days, Mantel endeavours a paradigm shift through her character(ization) of Thomas Cromwell. As Lukacs says—
“The principal front of a struggle in the artistic sphere, too, is the conquest of harmful legacies…not only because we possess in it a literary standard of a very high level for our portrayal of the real tendencies of popular life, hence a measure for the popular character of the historical novel, but also because the classical historical novel, as a result of this popular character, realized the general laws of large epic in a model form, whereas the novel of the period of decline, severed from life, largely destroyed theses general laws of narrative art—from composition and characterization down to the choice of language. The perspective of the novel’s return to true epic greatness, to an epic like character must reawaken these general laws of great narrative art, recall them to consciousness, translate them again into practice, if they are not to disintegrate into a self-contradictory ‘problematic’ ” (Lukacs 349)
A six hundred and fifty paged voluminous book, Wolf Hall is epical in its dimensions—in the canvas on which it is etched, in the dramatis personae, in the alteration of the very frames of reference and an alteration (subversion?) of power structure. Roles are reversed and consequently so are the power equations. Mantel has attempted a conquest, a subversion of a legacy and erection of another. Consequently, the perceptive reader looks back onto and into history, the history handed down to him as an inheritance and unearths a whole new world of meaning—both in his past, and in the present, in his present. Even if critics may find fault with Mantel’s overt concern with Cromwell, it is to be remembered that Wolf Hall is Mantel’s take on a certain chunk of history. Like a diamond, history, even this history that we unearth in the novel, may bring a different signification to the reader…
In Wolf Hall the reader is given a revealing peek into the character of Thomas Cromwell–into his private space–his thoughts, memories and emotional experiences, what we may term, quoting Mantel, is “like the dark side of the moon” (in an interaction with historian David Starkey).
Born at Putney in 1485, Thomas Cromwell’s father Walter Cromwell was a blacksmith and a brewer, known more for his drinking brawls and poor quality beer. Wolf Hall begins from here. As the narrative opens, the reader gets the impression of a murderer pursuing his kill.
“ ‘So now get up’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard…One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.” (Wolf Hall 3)
At the outset the reader is plunged into an aura of suspense. He does not even know who the figures are.
“Blood from the gash on his head—which was his father’s first effort—is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but…with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut…
It knocks the last breath out of him; he thinks it may be his last.” (Wolf Hall 3)
It is here that the reader learns of Walter beating his son. Subsequent passages strengthen the initial impression against Walter. He is beastly, ferocious, feared and detested by everyone–“ a good many people in Putney—and, for that matter, Mortlake and Wimbledon” (Wolf Hall 9) besides his own son, daughters and sons-in-law.
“…says Kat, ‘He’ll pick up whatever’s to hand. Which is sometimes a bottle,…I’ve seen him do it to my mother. Even our little Bet, I’ve seen him hit her over the head. Also I’ve not seen him do it, which was worse,…because it was me about to be felled.’” (Wolf Hall 6)
Such accounts suffice in giving us an idea of Thomas Cromwell’s origins or lack of proper origins—both in rank and in respectability; something even he accepts. As he tells himself later on—“But no: …he has no ancestors.” (Wolf Hall 275). Of course things are different for Walter who believes he has connections with an ancient family of rank and honour. Thus at the outset, the reader is plunged into an ambience of ambiguity. This opening looks forward to the ambiguity that lurks at every step, once Cromwell enters the portals of power. Also, judged from this introduction to Cromwell’s origins that we get in the opening, Cromwell’s rise and rise is both a steep ascension and a lonely walk.
At around fifteen Cromwell ran away to the Continent. For about a decade, he was there—employed in diverse services which gave him the practical knowledge that held him in good stead later on. He was a soldier in France, a clerk for merchant bankers in Italy and a wool-trader in the Netherlands. In his late twenties Cromwell returned to England and married a young widow, the daughter of a wool-trader. He took up law, and as in the previous occasions across the Channel, he excelled in this too. In 1523, Cromwell became a Member of Parliament. Soon afterwards he came to the notice of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, at that time the most powerful man in England.
In Wolf Hall this part of Cromwell’s life is unstated (omitted). And yet its resonance is to be felt powerfully throughout the narrative—in the form of flashbacks, or amidst Cromwell’s deliberations.
“When in Italy he had picked up a snake for a bet, he had to hold it till they counted ten. They counted, rather slowly, in the slower languages…At four the startled snake flicked its head and bit him. Between four and five he tightened his grip…when they had all reached ten, and not before, he eased its coiled body gently to the ground, and let it slip away into its future.” (WH 99).
“Why are we so attached to the severities of the past?Why are we so proud of ourselves for having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues?…Even Liz, once when they were very young, when she’d seen him early in the morning putting Gregory’s shirt to warm before the fire, even Liz had said sharply, don’t do that, he’ll expect it every day.” (WH 311)
“The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields…When he was a child this was the time for the boys who had been living wild on the heath all summer to come home and make their peace with their fathers.”(WH 318)
It also recurs in others’ reference to his ‘lowly’/‘dubious’ past.
We are given glimpses of Cromwell’s services in Chapter II of Part One of the novel, titled “Paternity”. It is as though Mantel presupposes the reader’s familiarity with the subject. By the time we arrive at “Paternity”, Cromwell is well settled in domesticity, with, a loving wife and children, relations and servants in a bustling household–Austin Friars. As the novel progresses, Cromwell grows in power, and Austin Friars too emerges as what Mantel calls “the powerhouse of Tudor politics” in an article published in “The Sunday Times” in April, 2009. Austin Friars becomes an institution in itself; noted men send their sons to be educated (and also, possibly enter the echelons of power), the poor, the hungry, the eager to rise gather at his gate in a manner strongly reminiscent of the royal household itself, of which Austin Friars emerges as a (counter) foil.
“And the more the king snips and carps, the more do his petitioners seek out the company of Cromwell…” (WH 306)
“Fat files of the king’s business arrive almost hourly, and the Austin Friars fill up with city merchants, monks and priests of various sorts, petitioners for five minutes of his time. As if they sense…,a shift of power,…small groups of Londoners begin to gather outside his gate…” (WH 320)
“At his own house he meets with parliamentarians and gentlemen from the Inns of Court and the city livery companies…” ( WH 341)
Wolsey had found in Cromwell an efficient man of business and had entrusted him with a good deal of the financial management of his educational schemes. Though there were accusations of bribery against Cromwell, however unscrupulous he may have been in dealing with others, he was always loyal to Wolsey. Soon Cromwell grew to be the Cardinal’s closest confidante and his most loyal servant. When the Cardinal fell from King Henry’s grace, Parliament had been summoned for November a bill depriving him for ever of office was introduced. Though it met with no opposition in the House of Lords, in the House of Commons, it was boldly resisted by Thomas Cromwell who won the King’s appreciation for his loyalty. Henry was impressed with the “combination of audacity and fidelity with shrewdness, resourcefulness, and unscrupulosity [in Cromwell], [which] was precisely what he wanted and precisely what he had found.” ( Innes 843-844). Soon enough Cromwell was summoned to the royal presence. This is a major turning point in Cromwell’s life, and in the novel. “The king meets his eye. He smiles” (WH184)
From then on, Cromwell not merely entered the King’s personal space; he became his personal advisor and the solver of all of the King’s problems. This ascension is seen in Part Three—‘Three Card Trick’,’Entirely Beloved Cromwell’ and ‘The Dead Complain of Their Burial’. We cite an instance from ‘The Dead Complain of Their Burial’—
The King has a dream where his dead brother Arthur returns and as he feels, accuses him and makes him feels ashamed. Distressed he summons Cromwell and the priest Dr. Cranmer to his private quarters—
“Cranmer is about to speak; he catches his eye, imperceptibly shakes his head. ‘Did your brother Arthur speak to you, in your dream?’
‘Did he make any sign?’
‘Then why believe he means Your Majesty anything but good? It seems to me you have read into his face what was not really there, which is a mistake we make with the dead…’ He puts his hand upon the royal person, on his sleeve of russet velvet, on his arm, and he grasps it hard enough to make himself felt. ‘You know…The prince dies but his power passes at the moment of his death, there is no lapse…If your brother visited you, it is not to make you feel ashamed, but to remind you that you are vested with the power both of the living and the dead. This is a sign for you to examine your kinship. And exert it.’” (WH 276).
Cromwell is well aware of the significations behind the dream. And yet when the King, still not fully convinced questions him further, Cromwell answers not what he feels, but what he ought to in that situation—
“He bites back the temptation to say, because you are forty and he is telling you to grow up. How many times have you enacted stories of Arthur—how many masques, how many pageants, how many companies of players with paper shields and wooden swords? ‘Because this is the vital time,’ he says. ‘Because is the time to become the ruler you should be, and to be sole and supreme head of your kingdom. Ask Lady Anne…She will say the same.’
‘She does,’ the king admits…” (WH 277)
Here we have an illustration of Cromwell’s personality: he has a clear-sighted understanding of situations, he is astute and shrewd enough to maneuver situations, shortcomings, flaws, and his own words to his advantage. On another occasion when the King is ranting against Stephen Gardiner–
“He [Cromwell] sits quietly, watching Henry, trying by stillness to defuse the situation; to wrap the ling in a blanketing silence, so that he, Henry can listen to himself. It is a great thing, to be able to divert the wrath of the Lion of England.” (WH 340)
“Gardiner is still Master Secretary, but he, Cromwell, now sees the king almost every day. If Henry wants advice, he can give it, or if the subject is outside his remit, he will find someone else who can. If the king has a complaint, he will say, leave it with me: if, by your royal favour, I may proceed? If the king is in a good humour he is ready to laugh, and if the king is miserable he is gentle and careful with him.” (WH 368)
We also see Cromwell’s persuasive power and his influence over the King. The roles are reversed: the subject, the supposedly subservient yields power over the ruler, the one supposed to be the most powerful man in the kingdom.
Such instances abound the novel. All the instances quoted from the text, are strokes from Mantel’s imagin(ation)ary brush. And yet, such depictions strengthen Thomas Cromwell’s ground. Instead of the vicious immoral villain of much of established discourses, and popular consciousness Cromwell in Wolf Hall is a patriarch who fathers (‘fathers’ in the figurative sense) a bustling household. In Mantel’s portraiture, Cromwell and his Austin Friars is a contrast if not a (counter)foil to King Henry and the English court. As the narrative progresses, Cromwell and Austin Friars rise together. Within a decade, Thomas Cromwell rose from being a burgess in the Parliament to the highest offices of the land—he was made a member of the privy council (1531), Master of Court of Wards and Master of Jewel House (1532), Chancellor of the Exchequer(1533), King’s Secretary and Master of the Rolls (1534), Vicar General (1535), Lord Privy Seal and Baron Cromwell of Oakham(1536), Knight of the Garter and Dean of Wells (1537), Lord Great Chamberlain(1539) and finally Earl of Esex (1540). In the novel, this rise takes place alongside the rising crescendo of political intrigue at play in Henry’s Court for placing Anne Boleyn on the throne, and wiping out all political-religious opposition. In fact Cromwell’s rise is in many ways facilitated by the same marital-political crisis. This imbroglio, that spurs the English Reformation, threatens war with Spain (whose emperor was the nephew of the Katherine of Aragon while the English king inclines towards a woman of French-origin. In the thick of all these stands Cromwell whose task is to clear the way for the King and Lady Anne, and make all necessary negotiations. And Cromwell managed to do so. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s competence is instantiated by his, sharp mind, and his almost superhuman ability. His is a system that never ceases functioning; throughout he is either doing something or thinking. Even in illness, he keeps working out figures in his mind. He never forgets his duties. He runs a bustling household and keeps a tab on every aspect of the affairs of the house. He keeps his emotions at check, and yet deep inside there lurks a riverfull of emotions. “Gregory turns his face away. Is he crying? It would not be surprising, would it, as he has cried himself…”(173). “He has a wish to speak, to express the bottled rage and pain he feels.”(251). The emotions surface in his moments of loneliness, in his dreams/hallucinations and as we see at the time of his illness. He loses his wife Elizabeth and then his daughters Anne and Grace in quick succession to Plague.Their memories haunt him constantly. And yet, he lets not life stop. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is the master of his own destiny.
“He, Cromwell, is no longer subject to vagaries of temperament, and he is almost never tired. Obstacles will be removed, tempers will be soothed, knots unknotted…his spirit is sturdy, his ill strong, his front imperturbable. The courtiers see that he can shape events, mould them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give thema sense of solidity in a quaking world…” (522)
This is both Cromwell telling himself, and Mantel telling the reader. Both Cromwell and Mantel through his actions (her characterization) not merely tells but show. The above extract lets off an aura of supremacy, of invincibility.
And indeed never before in the history of the pearl island had a man risen as fast. Never before had a man of such low birth risen so high. And yet, this apart from his rise was also the biggest objection that Cromwell faced—from the nobility, and (in subsequent times) the laity. The nobility feared the ‘intrusion’ of this lay-man, a man with no origins, into their echelons of power. They feared, what Mantel calls the “aristocracy of talent”(Mantel The Sunday Times). As the historian G. R. Elton argued for the first time in The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953) and later on in England Under the Tudors (1955) Cromwell was the capable administrator who effected changes that enabled English nation to step out from the shadows of medieval feudal form of government to a modern democratic form of government. Cromwell recognized the basic incompetence and inadequacy of the feudal form of government. Offices held by dint of birth or lineage did not always come up with good results—many nobles were inefficient, incompetent and irresponsible; they preferred enjoying luxuries rather than take responsibility (such as George Boleyn, later Lord Rochford), or else who led dissipated lives (just as Thomas Wyatt). Instead Cromwell foresaw the efficacy of offices held by men who were trained in those responsibilities. And who had expertise in their respective fields. Cromwell built a bureaucracy of professionals outside the royal household. This, we may even call one of the earliest(if not the) origins of democracy. Cromwell himself is an example, as are Cardinal Wolsey (who was said to be a butcher’s son) and Archbishop Cranmer. Austin Friars emerged as that institution. Rafe Sadler, Richard (Williams)Cromwell, Wriothesley, Christophe are just a few such names—who as we see under Cromwell’s eye emerge in their own ways, as men of the world. Even a distinguished man like Henry Wyatt desires Cromwell to be ‘father’ to his dissipating son Thomas.
Whereas hitherto the government ran on the following three pillars– a financial administration that was based on the king’s chamber; the extended use of the king’s seal; and the use of individual advisors as opposed to a council. Cromwell initiated (if not enforced—for oppositions to his policies were numerous) a form of government that was based on the “bureaucracy of talent” who followed certain strict rules and procedures. Different departments were created to deal with distinctive issues. As Elton believes Thomas Cromwell introduced a modern form of government. Among Cromwell’s other accomplishments, we can cite the following—
a) the dissolution of the monasteries and establishment of the royal supremacy
b) founding of the two courts of Wards and Surveyors which allowed better taxation and leasing
c) politically integrated the kingdom by extending sovereign authority to northern England, Wales & Ireland—of course at the cost of inviting further wrath from the nobility.
d)used the power of the printing-press—to spread what word he intended to spread;thereby organizing the first propaganda campaign in English history.
e) reformed the Privy Council. Earlier the council was like a large gathering of noblemen: there upto a hundred nobles to advise the King. However there were hardlya few that attended these meetings, enabling one or two to gain in power and dominate the others. Upon reform the Privy Council was now made up of twenty men who were specifically chosen to have responsibility for the day-to-day running of government.
f) the different departments received money from pre-specified sources – there was meant to be no overlapping – and paid out money for reasons that had to be sanctioned first. Each department was rigorously audited. This put a hold on siphoning of money from the treasury.
g) The setting up of the departments of Court of Augmentations and the Court of First Fruits and Tenths to look after Henry’s income from the Church following the dissolution of the monasteries.These departments had the legal provision to decide i.e. judge disputes.
And yet, never before had a man been as hated—both in his day and afterwards. Historical accounts of Cromwell range from disdain to scathing criticism. From the beginning, Thomas Cromwell had been the archetypal villain, the scheming overreacher who had through his cunning gotten where he didn’t deserve to be. In ‘The History of Thomas Cromwell Earl of Essex’ Cromwell’s ascension is described thus—
“Cromwell’s services, which were given with such dexterous servility, unscrupulous tactics, and commanding resolution, that the road to the highest honours in the State shortly presented an unimpeded course for his ambition”.
In Essays on Subjects Connected with the Reformation in England (1849), Rev. S. R. Maitland speaks of Cromwell thus—
“This man…was the great patron of ribaldry, and the protector of the ribalds of the low jester, the filthy ballad-monger, the ale-house singers and hypocritical mockers in feasts : in short, in an indirect but yet efficient mode of all the blasphemous mocking and scoffing which disgraced the Protestant party at the time of the Reformation.” (Maitland 236)
Owing to his low, and uncertain origins (there were many rumours about Cromwell’s childhood—which he fanned by his seeming nonchalance).
“Stephen sings always on one note. Your reprobate father. Your low birth. Stephen is supposedly some sort of semi-royal by-blow: brought up for payment, discreetly, as their own, by discreet people in a small town. They are wool trade people, whom Master Stephen resents and wishes to forget…” (WH 17)
“ ‘A man from my college,’ Dr. Cranmer says tentatively, ‘was told by the cardinal that as an infant you were stolen by pirates.’
He stares at him for a moment, then smiles in slow delight.
‘How I miss my master.Now…,there is no one to invent me.’
Dr. Cranmer, cautious: ‘So it is not true?Because I wondered if there was doubt over whether you were baptised…’” (WH 247)
Cromwell was deemed base, ruthless, cunning. He was everything that a ‘noble’ was not. He was an outsider. Both in his childhood and in his days of glory (and in his fall, though we do not see Cromwell fall in Wolf Hall however; we see him only rise and rise) he was a lonely man, who existed in the periphery of people’s concerns. Throughout he was viewed no better than a servant, or at best a fixer(-of-problems). Even King Henry VIII had remarked of him before the French ambassador, “A good household manager, but not fit to meddle in the affairs of kings” (1538). This of course was an understatement. (For) As Mantel’s novel shows Cromwell not merely ‘managed’ Henry’s household efficiently—including all of the king’s (complicated) marital affairs, besides looking after the finances and administration of the nation; he effected decisions that altered forever the course of England’s ecclesiastical and political history. Cromwell was widely touted as the man behind England’s break with Rome. Arthur D. Innes writes in this regard—
“The fundamental fact, however, which must be borne in mind in the early stages of the Reformation in England is this: that whereas the cause to which both Luther and Zwingli devoted themselves was primarily a revision of dogmas and of the practices associated with them, the work which Henry VIII. and Thomas Cromwell were to take in hand was the revision of the relations between Church and State–of the position of the Clerical organisation as a part of the body politic; not the introduction of Lutheran or Zwinglian doctrines. Such countenance as was given to Lutheranism was given for purely political reasons… Henry’s was a Political Reconstruction entailing ultimately a reformed religion. (Innes 724-726)
And indeed, the Reformation was not a reform-ation ; there was not much reform in ecclesiology. Rather it was a re-formation of the English Church to suit Henry’s desire for a woman(who was, as he believed to give him a male heir), and prevent any invasion from Spain and Cromwell’s responsibility to fulfill such desires. The Reformation was motivated by personal and political factors. King Henricus Rex has long been known as the upholder of faith. Prior to his break with Rome, he had even (ghost?)written a tract opposing, denouncing Martin Luther’s doctrines, for which he had been bestowed with the tile of ‘Defender of Faith’. Henry a devout Catholic himself (he had been earlier titled ‘defender of Faith’ by the Catholic Church for his tracts against Martin Luther) had no intentions of ushering in reformation in ecclesiology. However, it was Cromwell who saw the corruption and mismanagement of funds in many monasteries and abbeys. Further, the nation (read the King himself) was quite poor. Dukes and Lords were often in debt (there are several such instances in the novel). Cromwell was to find a way put of the economic crisis. The churches, and churchmen, especially those in the upper echelons were owners of virtual treasure troves. (Descriptions of Cardinal Wolsey in the early part of Wolf Hall attest to this). That money was to be directed to the royal treasury.
“…it is not unusual now to be told that the changes effected by the Reformation were small, except in so far as the Church was robbed by the destruction of the monasteries… the movement was one in which many factors were at work. Moralists, theologians, and politicians, all had their share in it; some who were prominent promoters of it in one phase were its no less active antagonists in another; and not infrequently were guided by purely personal ambitions and interests throughout. (Innes 602-606)
A traditionalist society, the English looked up to continuance of the old rather than embracing the new. In this context Mantel writes—
“In writing about Cromwell, I came to admire him, but it’s not part of my intention to whitewash him. He operated in conditions where England was isolated, a pariah state, and vulnerable to invasion. He was a formidable interrogator, and he tortured people he thought a threat to national security. At the same time — these are the contradictions a novelist must work with — he was a humane man with a radical social vision. His circle of reformers plotted sweeping law reforms, educational initiatives, and the tentative beginnings of state responsibility for the poor and unemployed… But the mass of people, deeply conservative in their instincts, didn’t begin to grasp this. Far from being glad that an ordinary man was close to the king, they read Cromwell’s career as unnatural; kings should be advised by noblemen. How had this upstart got so much power? He must be a sorcerer. Wolsey, people said, had left him an enchanted ring, which he used to control the king.” (Mantel, The Sunday Times , 2009)
Mantel sticks close to accepted accepted and established data. It is only that she uses newer, different strokes of her brush. She. The dates assigned to each chapter locate the events in a particular time. As mentioned before, Mantel does not distort the picture. Rather, she adds colours and unravels hidden facets of Cromwell
Interestingly in Wolf Hall we see only the rise and rise of Cromwell. This rise reaches its climax in ‘Supremacy’ Part Six. Cromwell, we are told hears something he had been waiting to hear—
“Henry says, ‘Do what you have to do. I will back you.’
It’s like hearing words you’ve waited all your life. It’s like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.” (Wolf Hall, 533)
It is thus as though Cromwell long knew about his destiny. And yet, when he reaches home, the Cardinal Wolsey is waiting for him.
“Wolsey says, you know he will take the credit for your good ideas, and you the blame for the bad ones? When fortune turns against you, you will feel her lash: you always never.” (Wolf Hall, 533)
By the last page of the novel, the author points towards the future. Cromwell plans an itinerary that includes Wolf Hall (this is probably the fourth or fifth time the name gets mentioned, and the first time when it gets mentioned with importance in the entire novel) where lives Jane Seymour the future Queen, and with whose sister Cromwell gets his son Gregory married. That marks the culmination of Cromwell’s rise. For not very long after that, he will himself feel‘fortune’s lashes’. The novel’s end leaves a flurry of possibilities. There are at the same time, many a prophetic moment in the novel. As in—
“Every rising family needs information. With the king considering himself a bachelor, any little girl can hold the key to the future, and not all his money is on Anne.” (WH 244)
“Jane lowers her head, looks up at him from under her eyelids.
‘That is my humble face. Do you think it will serve?’
He laughs. ‘It would take you anywhere.’ (WH 389)
These instances suggest a continuity of the story–the continuity of palace intrigues, the continuity of Henry’s pursuit for a male heir and newer (marital)alliances, the continuity of the vicous circle of power.
In an interview with Susan O’Reilly, Mantel says—
“I think Cromwell’s been given a very hard time by writers. In fiction and drama [Robert Bolt’s play comes to mind here] he’s been caricatured as an evil figure in a black cloak [the association of Cromwell with the Devil is a constant one throughout], lurking in the wings with dishonourable intentions. In biography his essential self is missing, because his private life is almost entirely off the record… Cromwell didn’t deploy his heavy artillery unless he needed to. He was a persuader and a negotiator and, to a degree, a compromiser. I think the picture darkened with the Victorians. Cromwell’s image hasn’t always been bad: in Elizabethan legend and literature he was a hero, but to the Victorians he presented a problem. He wasn’t a varsity man. Historians couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a member of the lower orders rising so high in the hierarchy. There was also a sentimentality about the medieval world, with Cromwell seen as one of its destroyers. This idea persists today.” (O’Reilly 4)
The narrative is taut, and the focalization is tight and it is almost entirely Cromwell’s. Richly textured, the narrative is in the present tense—and yet this is a present where the past seamlessly blends.
There are constant spatial and temporal shifts. The generalizations are powerful and universal; and in these, the author Mantel herself steps in. For instance, “The best of us are forced against the grain.” (WH 371). Again—
“ ‘Have you ever observed that when a man gets a son he takes all the credit, and when he gets a daughter he blames his wife?And if they do not breed at all, we say it is because her womb is barren. We do not say it is because his seed is bad.’” (WH 503-504)
The above is a powerful statement and yet it doesn’t sound discordant. This is owing to the contemporaneity in the language which, in spite of its 16th century setting makes ‘Wolf Hall’ a novel of the present; and in spite of its 16th century setting makes it a novel of today. The dates mentioned at the beginning of each chapter are signposts that frame the setting and remind us that we are in 16th century; also this way historical verisimilitude and the realism in fiction. Mantel’s credit is making such a familiar piece of history interesting. The italicized parts in the preceding section are those familiar ‘data’ which have been juxtaposed alongside references from the text.
In Mantel’s own words, this has been “an ambitious book” . Cromwell according to her is “a nightmare to a biographer and a gift to a novelist” (Mantel’s interaction with Starkey).
Mantel is not judgemental—she offers a critique of the murky politics in the English(Tudor) nobility, and yet, she does not shy away from showing Cromwell in his weakness—she mentions the bribes he took, the spies he had placed in important households, she shows that he could kill. She both works within and explores the limits of the structures of legitimacy. Her fiction is historically correct.
And yet, the fiction forces the perceptive reader to look back in time, to re-read history.
Thus out of the dialectic in this paper emerges the conclusion(which of course is not to be equated with closure) that it is not an either/or binary that we witness in our critical reading of Wolf Hall. On the contrary it is a duality: history is fictionalized—history as raw material undergoes fictional colouring and enables a re-reading of the past that re-shapes the present. More than a servant Cromwell is established as a compatriot to King Henry—in many ways his friend,philosopher and guide (albeit for a brief period,but Cromwell’s fall is beyond the concerns of this novel). Mantel’s treatment places him at the level of a myth, if not as icon.
Mantel sums up Thomas Cromwell succinctly—
“The whole of the first Cromwell’s* story is supremely unlikely, and this is what drew me to the spectacle of his rise and rise. Like Henry himself, he is less like a historical figure than a figure from myth, an adventurer, a trickster, a chance; one of those strange beings who transcend anything that could have been predicted for them, and who change the shape of the world before they leave it”(Mantel,The Sunday Times , 2)
[*first Cromwell: the other Cromwell is Oliver Cromwell, descendent of Richard, son of Cromwell’s sister Katherine].
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Stuti Goswami teaches English literature in B.Borooah College, Guwahati. A freelance writer and translator her articles, stories , interviews and translated works have been published in The Times of India, The Assam Tribune, The Sentinel , North East Computer Today (an IT journal), Luitor Pora Thamesoloi (a bi-lingual magazine published through an Indo-British collaboration), Quest (the journal of Vivekananda Institute of Culture, a Guwahati-based research centre of the Vivekananda Kendra affiliated to Dibrugarh University), besides e-magazines Batadrawa(the first bi-lingual e-magazine from North-East India), Assam Chronicle, Assam Times etc. Her translation has also appeared in the official website of Saurav Kumar Chaliha, widely considered the greatest Assamese modern writer. She is presently engaged in translation of Anuradhar Desh (Anuradha’s World) an award-winning Assamese novel by renowned writer Phanindra Kumar Dev Chodhury and is in talks for translation of the novel Nirjon Dwipot Edin(A Day on Solitude Island) by the award-winning writer Kula Saikia. She has translated an autobiography Mor Jeevan Dristi by Sishuram Pegu for a project under the Centre de Nationale Researche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris, France, besides a few chapters from Jeevan Juktir Bahirot, an autobiographical work by Pankaj Thakur. Her areas of interest are diverse and include musicology, food, visual arts, socio-political issues including insurgency and illegal immigration, to American Literature, Studies on Gender and Ethnicity, Indian Writing in English and Indian Literature in Regional Languages. An alumnus of the Dept. of English, Cotton College, Guwahati, she is actively associated with the local media and has worked as an Assistant Director in Commissioned Programmes for Delhi Doordarshan Kendra, Guwahati besides briefly hosting a show on an Assamese entertainment channel.