Books of Consequence: Amherst reads Wolf Hall

Best book about Amherst ever? Love the classic cover art

Best book about Amherst ever? Love the classic cover art

I was psyched this summer to hear that the local Amherst alumni club was starting a book club. I’ve never had the chance to be in a book club, and despite the possible Lives of Consequence-having pretension and Mercantile-wearing post-Valleyness you might associate with a roomful of Amherst grads, you could probably expect everyone to bring something good to the discussion. Our first meeting was on The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, by Jennifer Cody Epstein (Amherst ’89 dahling!). This novel intertwines family stories (American, Japanese, and hybrid) through the history of Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II and the American bombing raids on Tokyo. Some of the writers in the group talked about what shapes a novel, and we had a most Amhersty exploration of the ethics of writing about cultures and traumas that are not the writer’s own.

Wriothesley "Call-me-Risley" Road, right near my house, keeps 'ol Hilary in my heart every time I run by

Wriothesley “Call-me-Risley” Road, right near my house, keeps ‘ol Hilary in my heart every time I run by

I signed up to organize the next meeting, and offered three unbeatable options: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Swamplandia!, and Wolf Hall. I hope we read them all but the first-round winner is Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s brutal, beautiful and eye-opening portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s consiglieri and fixer. This is a 600+ page, Booker-winning beast of a novel, so no attempts at summary here. There is also a well-known play, A Man for All Seasons, about Cromwell and his enemy Thomas More, in which Cromwell comes out the bad guy. I haven’t read it! But in the hopes of persuading my fellow Readers of Consequence (cue Masterpiece Theater theme song) to pick up finish the book, and for the fun of transcribing some of Mantel’s language, I thought I’d take a stab at talking about some of the themes that run through the book. I was a bit sad to find some book-club bloggers on Wolf Hall were not very impressed, felt it was too long, etc. We can’t have that! So, some Notes Towards a Book Club Study Guide:

“Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as though you could afford to be”

“Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as though you could afford to be.”

1) One of the obvious strokes of brilliance by Mantel is in writing the book in the present tense, third person, with the Cromwell protagonist addressed as “he.” For me this decision is a big part of achieving such a contemporary and urgent feeling throughout the book. But in a few key moments Mantel addresses a “we” or “you,” bringing readers into a new present-tense that suggests we are still enmeshed in the mythical and real history of Britain. Or, as Faulkner says, the past is never dead; it’s not even past. This passage early in the book, just as we enter into the grim back story of how Cromwell’s first master, Wolsey, fell from grace, brings “we readers” into this continuing connection of a present (ours? Cromwell’s?) to Britain’s history.

Whichever way you look at it, it all begins in slaughter. Trojan Brutus and his descendents ruled till the coming of the Romans. Before London was called Lud’s Town, it was called New Troy. And we were Trojans…Arthur, High King of Britain, was Constantine’s grandson. He married up to three women, all called Guinevere, and his tomb is at Glastonbury, but you must understand that he is not really dead, only waiting his time to come again…[Had Arthur lived] Henry would likely be Archbishop of Canterbury, and would not (at least, we devoutly hope not) be in pursuit of a woman of whom the cardinal hears nothing good; a woman to whom, several years before the dukes walk in to despoil him, he will need to turn his attention; whose history, before ruin seizes him, he will need to comprehend.

Beneath every history, another history (p. 61)

So, reading buddies: how does the time/tense in which Wolf Hall takes place figure into your understanding of Cromwell and of the book’s events?

2) 2) The passage above highlights two other key themes: violence and magic. The book begins with Cromwell as a boy being beaten almost to death by his father, and includes scenes of assassination, burnings at the stake, and torture. Here is the aftermath of a scholar burned at the stake: “At Smithfield Frith is being shoveled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty; a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.” (p. 443) Cromwell remembers how as a boy he wandered into the scene of another burning, and that afterwards the martyr’s companions smeared the fatty ash that remained onto Cromwell’s hand to remember her. He is a blacksmith’s son, a figure of physical intimidation and violence, while also steering Britain’s leaders away from war and torture. Here he is talking to the Duke of Norfolk:

“We can’t win,” the duke says, “but we have to fight as if we can. Hang the waste: money, men, horses, ships. That’s what’s wrong with Wolsey,  you see. Always at the treaty table. How can a butcher’s son understand—“
“La gloire?”
“Are you a butcher’s son?”
“A blacksmith’s.” (161)

Reading buddies: how does the violence in Wolf Hall figure in your understanding and/or appreciation of the book?

As you can see in Mantel’s earlier quote about the prehistory of Britain, magic for her percolates below the surface of all that happens in Wolf Hall. It emerges as a threat to the state in the person of the “Holy Maid,” a country girl whose contrived visions of the Virgin and of the king’s downfall are useful to enemies of the Tudors. Cromwell eventually breaks the Holy Maid and forces her public penance, as he says, to dispel the grip that her particular kind of hucksterish and predatory magic has on the people:

It is necessary to break the hold of these people who talk of the end times and threaten us with plagues and damnation. It is necessary to dispel the terror they create. (476)

Right around the time I read this passage, a member of the United States Congress stated that Obama’s policy in Syria was a sign of the end times, which she indeed welcomed as a harbinger of Christ’s rebirth and the apocalypse foreordained in Revelations. Cromwell’s opposition to such ideological world-enders and magicalists is needed in every era. Yet Mantel conveys throughout the book what you might call a rational acceptance that magic exists, that it overlaps the world of the real in various ways that people can exploit or use to find comfort. In this she builds on her earlier novel, Beyond Black, about contemporary women psychics.

My friend Rod who is a lucky BAST*DRDGD about to see the London stage production of Wolf Hall

My friend Rod who is a lucky BAST*DRDGD about to see the London stage production of Wolf Hall

Reading buddies: how did you consider the role of magic in this book nominally about affairs of state? I thought Mantel used magic as a way into reckoning with the lives of royalty, who back then were inevitably both mortal beings and evanescent representations of The State and other virtues. Here’s another passage on Henry and this duality:

The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being; you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be hunting in the forest, while his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas. (445)

3) Wolf Hall also finds in Cromwell a much greater capacity for positive relationships with women, children, the poor and displaced than most of the other Men of Consequence in the novel. The stage for these relationships is the household, which is described as not just the home of a family but also a workshop, office, and small fortress. Here Mantel depicts Cromwell’s household and the people in it as his pupils and troops, to whom he needs to impart some of his own ability to see matters from both sides:

The Austin Friars is like the world in little. These few years it’s been more like a battlefield than a household; or like one of the tented encampments in which the survivors look in despair at their shattered limbs and spoiled expectations. But they are his to direct, these last hardened troops; if they are not to be flattened in the next charge it is he who must teach them the defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne. (239)

In all these matters—the inescapable violence of England, and the need to resist it; the nature of the King, as both Monarch and scoundrel—Mantel finds in Cromwell an irresistible bridge between these two tendencies. I don’t know whether her fascination for the character is admiration exactly, but she creates a character for him that serves her amazingly well as protagonist. Here he is inspecting a new carpet that Thomas More has bought:

His hand skims the surface, rich and soft. The flaw in the weave hardly matters. A turkey carpet is not an oath. There are some people in this world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person. He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight. Leases, writs, statutes, all are written to be read, and each person reads them by the light of self-interest. More says, “What do you think, gentlemen? Walk on it, or hang it on the wall?”
“Walk on it.”
“Thomas, your luxurious tastes!” And they laugh. You would think they were friends. (211)

Just another great moment in which Mantel’s narrator gazes through the fourth wall to bring the reader of the novel into the scene of “reading” the matters of state and life she depicts. It is fitting that More’s house, a much chillier household than Cromwell’s, is the scene.

Reading buddies: what did you make of Cromwell’s relationships with, and mourning of, his wife and daughters? Do  you think his household is “modern”?

4) Mantel also has a few passages in which she rips off a poetic descriptive rampage, stepping outside the frame of the narrative to deliver an authorly soliloquy that reminds me of Whitman or Melville. Here is a passage that comes after Cromwell encounters Francis, King of France, who of course views one tradesman as just like another. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, differs:

One tradesman the same as the next? Not in the real world. Any man with a steady hand and a cleaver can call himself a butcher: but without the smith, where does he get that cleaver? Without the man who works in metal, where are your hammers, your scythes, your sickles, scissors and planes? Your arms and armor, your arrowheads, your pikes and your guns? Where are your ships at sea and their anchors? Where are your grappling hooks, your nails, latches, hinges, pokers and tongs? Where are your spits, kettles, trivets, your harness rings, buckles and bits? Where are your knives? (306)

You have to just bow down to Mantel on this one, which, given the violence throughout the book and in Cromwell’s history particularly, ends appropriately on knives. Seamus Heaney would be happy with this evocative tear conducted primarily in Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate words.

Reading buddies: what is your favorite passage in the book?

One thought on “Books of Consequence: Amherst reads Wolf Hall

  1. What a grate paean to one of the great novels of the 21st century. Without your key into her use of the 3rd person present tense to make us watch the action as if we were at the movie of Wolf Hall, I wouldn’t have understood. But, it works amazingly.
    My memory of the book relies more on the “magical” interplay between Cromwell’s rich personal and emotional life at home, Austin Friars, and out in the cold and vicious world of royal affairs and grappling weaponry.
    The basic contrast for me is located between that almost cozy world of women, children, live stock and gardens, and the violence of Tudor politics.
    NB – Hilary Mantel wrote much of Wolf Hall from a sick bed, another amazing side of this brilliant woman, her triumph over a debilitating illness.
    Question for your reading buddies – should you read “Bring Up the Bodies?” or will that be too much like compare and contrast? I loved it, but nothing is like Wolf Hall.
    Your reference to Walt Whitman is so apt! “Moby Dick” was also replete with convincing descriptions of the machinery of whale hunting, knives and all. A very broad canvas.

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