With the critical and commercial success of her audaciously brilliant novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has shown, as someone reassuringly does once in a while, that great literature can also shift serious numbers of units. It was particularly fitting, therefore, that she kicked off this year’s travel-chaos-depleted London Book Fair.
Being the author of many acclaimed novels and not one afraid to write about key historical figures – A Place of Greater Safety portrayed the French Revolution through the eyes of Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton – Mantel is hardly a publishing gamble. Still, Wolf Hall blazes with inspiration against a landscape of often safe and/or hopeful fiction choices from British publishers at present.
The novel’s narrative structure mirrors Mantel’s description of Cromwell to the captivated book fair crowd: he was a visionary, but one who understood and was obsessive about detail and therefore could make things happen – ‘and that is very rare, I think’. Similarly Wolf Hall’s narrative faultlessly melds the events of one of English history’s most volatile and significant periods with the heartbeat of individual experience.
Mantel’s motivation, she tells us, are the untold stories. In writing Wolf Hall she explains she was less interested in the pomp and circumstance of power’s façade, than in the shadowy figures dressed in black, whispering, plotting and negotiating in dark corners. This is where real power lies and this novel is all about power.
Initially Cromwell is calculated and calm in his dealings, manoeuvring his way expertly to the heart of the court, making himself indispensable. Machiavellian at work, loving generous and loyal in his domestic life, Cromwell bewitches the reader. But something changes, as it must.
The pivotal moment comes when Cromwell is called for by the king in the middle of the night. Henry, still married to Catherine of Aragon but desperately trying to get the union annulled, has suffered a bad dream in which his dead brother, and Catherine’s former husband, Prince Arthur has appeared to him. He senses the dream is some form of reproach, and he cannot recover his peace. So he has called for Cromwell.
His loyal servant duly and very skilfully comforts the king into believing that the dream is a benign one; he grips ‘the royal person’ firmly by the arm in the king’s own bed chamber as he convinces him it is so. Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is present throughout and when the two are turfed out into the dawn-streaked corridor he remarks, ‘And that hand of yours, to take a grip on circumstance – when you took the king’s arm in your grasp, I winced myself. And Henry, he felt it. […] You are a person of great force of will.’
So the blacksmith’s son can influence the king, is called in the night as the only man who can bring him comfort? The intoxicating nature of power, the arrogance of it, has truly entered his veins and one feels that it is from this point in the narrative that his path to the executioner’s block has begun. But this time, we are on Cromwell’s side.
Great fiction is capable of illuminating hidden stories and telling us something new; Wolf Hall invites us to understand a world that, although we know it from the history books, still seems utterly remote from ours, and it succeeds completely. Its value is not via the clunking connections we can draw between our own politics and Tudor intrigue, or between today’s religious extremists and those Catholics who were prepared to burn at the stake for what they believed. On the contrary, Mantel argues that the past is interesting for its own sake. She seeks to show us that the dead were as real then as we are now, uncertain of what was to come, progressing through time blind, hopeful and anxious.
Mantel took a gamble telling Cromwell’s story through his own beady eyes, to believe she could inhabit Tudor England and King Henry’s court, imagine its historical players and richly draw their inner lives on the page. But like her protagonist-hero her risk is a calculated one due to the powerful intellect that lies behind it, the confidence she must have as a writer. Perhaps she can also inspire writers and publishers to take bigger gambles on ambitious literary fiction.