Wolf Hall reviewed

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Thomas CromwellI have just finished watching the six-part BBC series, Wolf Hall, based on the two novels by Hilary Mantel. I am also about halfway through my reading of the first of the two, Wolf Hall (with Bring up the Bodies waiting in the bedside pile).

The series conflates the two novels into six one-hour episodes. Given the length of the novels (Wolf Hall is 650 pages itself), compacting them and retaining clarity, plot and drama is quite a feat.

Normally, I would argue for the written word over the adaptation. Any adaptation. As good as they may be, it is rare that a film or TV production can match the richness of any book. But in this instance, I find myself siding with the BBC’s version when recommending a choice to others. It is beautiful, well-crafted production, and visually stunning. But in truth, the two are synergistic.

(digression: the exacting approach of the BBC to history, to production, to costume and sets puts to shame the risible, American TV series, The Tudors).

For me, the period of the Tudors is the most intriguing, exciting, entertaining period of English history. In part it’s because the Renaissance bursts upon European consciousness and radically changes everything – politics, art, philosophy, literature, music, technology et al. And on its heels comes the Protestant Reformation, which rocks the very foundation of everything it touches. Everything was in flux.

It’s also in part because the Tudors themselves are larger-than-life characters in a giant, swirling drama that reaches into the nations and courts across Europe.

Unlike earlier periods, the Tudor era is remarkably well documented – the first period to benefit from the new printing technology that swept the continent. We know much more about the daily lives of the time than we do about previous eras. So it helps make the characters live in our imagination. Plus it is the era of Shakespeare, albeit a generation later than this series portrays.

And then there’s the story itself. Or rather, the many stories – plots and subplots, twists and turns – that arise. Henry VII’s rise from Bosworth to end the War of the Roses, Henry VIII’s unexpected ascension to the throne, and his marital adventures. Elizabeth I and her reign against all odds. Mary. Edward. Five monarchs in all. It’s just such rich stuff, compressed into a mere 120 years. You can’t fail to be drawn in.

Who among us doesn’t know at least the outline of the story of Henry VIII’s wives? Or the defeat of the Spanish Armada under Elizabeth? Mary Queen of Scots? The beheading of Anne?

Little wonder I continue to read and watch stories about them. They are endlessly entertaining.


But not everything. I’ve generally not found the popular historical romances very appealling, although I tried a couple of them. I did enjoy Margaret George’s Autobiography of Henry VIII so much I read it twice, however. But mostly what I read on the era is non-fiction. These, too, can be as romantic and opinionated as any novel, of course, as anyone reading David Starkey or Alison Weir knows.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Of course, that Shakespeare quotation on the mortality of kings is from (and spoken by) Richard II, not a Tudor, but it opens Leanda De Lisle’s 2013 book, Tudor (Chatto & Windus, UK), which I also happened to get recently. And it’s terribly apropos for any discussion of the Tudors. And The Bard often put comments about contemporary politics and personalities into the mouths of his historical characters (ah, yes, dear reader, you murmur to yourself that Shakespeare wrote a play about this very time and these very same characters, Henry VIII, but Cromwell plays a minor role in it, with no memorable speeches).

While the Tudors take centre stage in this century-long epic, they have a strong supporting cast of characters without whom the stories would be so much poorer. In fact they may never have followed their trajectories without them. And one of those key players strutting his stuff on the stage was Thomas Cromwell, son of a Putney blacksmith who rose against all odds to become Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

Hilary Mantel chose to write a novel about not Henry per se, but rather about Thomas Cromwell: the Tudor times and events seen through his eyes, from his orbit around the throne. She takes a sympathetic, but unsentimental approach to a man who is generally not well admired or appreciated, although in the latter part of the 20th century, that impression changed somewhat. But he is often pictured as somewhat villainous, oleaginous, sneaky and even Machiavellian. Not unlike some local civil servants we all know. Mantel humanizes him (a feat not even sycophantic local media has managed to accomplish with our administration).*

Mantel’s Cromwell is an enigmatic figure. Smart, cunning, pragmatic, political – but what does he stand for? What are his dreams, his ambitions, his beliefs? He is so reserved that the death of his wife and children seem little more than ripples on his stony demeanor. Who hides inside that rigid shell?

History is not always kind, but an author can enjoy a perspective that might be labelled revisionist in a non-fiction writer. Historians sift through the minutiae to weigh upon the judgments, and are themselves judged in their conclusions, often harshly, by their peers. Whereas authors may imagine emotions, thoughts and conversations and we never question their integrity. Imagination, after all, has so much more latitude than fact.

The story need not be a mirror that reflects the exactness of events and personalities, although the frame needs to be reasonably straight and intact. That story has been told and retold many times. Even though it has its own drama built in, the colours have been dulled somewhat by the retelling. What we need is something fresh, something new, a look through a different lens, a new filter to bring it into focus again. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote in the New York Review of Books:

Historical accuracy is not the issue: scrutiny of Cromwell’s surviving letters suggests that he probably did not sound very much like Mantel’s hero. What matters is the illusion of reality, the ability to summon up ghosts. The historical novel then is always an act of conjuring.

So whether or not Cromwell was really who Mantel paints matters little: what matters is how he wears his role in her tale. He is an instrument of her art, of her storytelling, and we accept him as he dresses him. And he’s not the Cromwell we’re used to. As Olivia Laing wrote in The Guardian:

But the joy of a historical novel is that it chivvies the dead into dancing life, revealing the humanity that has flaked away from the official record. With her magpie’s eye for the telling detail, Mantel is an adept resurrectionist.

On the other hand, she has little sympathy for Anne Boleyn, who appears as conniving, shrewd but shrewish, self-absorbed and petty. Right until then end, of course, when she tugs our heartstrings as the executioner’s sword approaches. No dripping sentimentality for Anne, although her fate is undeserved.

And Thomas More gets similar treatment. The gentle humanist scholar who penned Utopia emerges in Wolf Hall as a hypocritical, righteous religious fanatic, locked in an intellectual battle with Cromwell. A very unsympathetic role and we don’t even blink when his fate parallel’s Anne’s. But there’s a subtle subplot here: Cromwell and More quietly but sternly battle over the towering religious issues of the day: the Protestant “heresy” and the reading of the bible in English. Mantel lightly daubs Cromwell with the paint of reformation supporter, but not enough for him to emerge as its champion. He doesn’t go to war for anyone’s belief, merely jousts verbally.

As a writer and editor, beset with a mild obsession about typography, I often read books differently than some folks. I look at the words, the sentence structure, the length of lines, paragraphs, chapters. I try to feel the rhythm of the writing – the rise and fall of adjectives against the rocky shores of nouns. The motion of verbs and their caressing adverbs. The spacing of lines, the shift of viewpoints, the way dialogue is presented and thoughts expressed.

Some writers are rich, lush wordsmiths. Others, like Mantel, are spartan. Neither is better, just different. A jungle is merely different from a desert environment. But a sparing writer like Mantel needs to work at building our imagination up a little more. She doesn’t depend so much on the vivid descriptions as on wireframe outlines, letting us fill in the details ourselves. And yet she subtly makes her 16th century world come alive without having to explicitly dress it up. It seems less a costume drama than an interior monologue, almost Joycean in its inward gazing.

Cromwell, our central navel-gazer here,, is a man of few words and even less humour. His comments are often cryptically barbed one-liners. Having the image of Rylance’s portrayal in my head makes the reading easier.

Which is where the BBC series shines; we can see the gardens, the walls, the floors, the clothing. We see the room darken as the housekeeper snuffs out the candles one at a time. We hear the crunch of gravel underfoot, the rustle of capes and dresses as characters walk. We don’t need to conjure them in our mind’s eye.

I’ve been there. I’ve stood in houses and palaces and gardens where Cromwell and Henry VIII walked and dined. I’ve walked through Windsor, Hampton Court and Hever Castle, breathing under the arches where this very cast of characters once exchanged greetings, plotted against one another. One cannot stand in Westminster Abbey and not feel the almost crushing weight of history. To see this series is, for me, to be reminded of those moments.

I had begun the book some time earlier, but put it down, not liking the style very much. Terse, it felt thin and demanding. Too often I re-read a line to add in my mind the missing adjectives. I was used to pageantry and pomp in my reading of the era. I didn’t want to work for it. And where are the great acts, the sweeping moves of history, the battles? It’s a book of dialogue and reflection: Renaissance talking heads. The plot runs underground, sluggishly moving forward.

But I started to read again as I watched the series. That show helped me build the world, flesh out the characters and suddenly the novel flowed so much better. The dry, laconic Cromwell played brilliantly by Mark Rylance, comes to life after seeing and hearing him in the TV show (his tight, steely eyed, controlled performance is truly magnificent). Damian Lewis as Henry is inspired casting. Claire Foy as Anne initially threw me, but now I cannot help but see her face when I read Mantel.

I suppose that it’s a bit like the audience first introduced to Tolkein through the movies. When they finally read the books (as they must to fully appreciate the depth and dimensions of Tolkein’s vision), they cannot help but imagine Gandalf and Frodo and the rest as portrayed in the films. They crystallize it. As did Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is a great TV production, for both its own right and as entrance to Mantel’s novels. I recommend it to anyone who likes the era, historical dramas and costume pieces. And if you’ve not read the books, just seeing a preview will set the characters up in a positive way for the reading and smooth your way into it. As Vicky Frost wrote in The Guardian:

It is a special drama that not just withstands a rewatch but grows richer for it. Peter Straughan’s measured adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels becomes more compelling with subsequent viewing, thanks to its nuanced performances and economical direction; layers of subtlety revealed in quiet asides or unnoticed glances. It is without doubt, some of the most impressive British TV drama in years.

It remains to be seen if there will be a subsequent mini-series to cover the third book – as yet unpublished – in Mantel’s trilogy. I hope so.

~~~~~
* Were I to write a satire on local politics based on this theme, it might be called Weasel Hall. Calling it Rat Hall might make it seem too much like Wind in the Willows.

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