Review: “Wolf Hall”, by Hilary Mantel


Cromwell is also, as Mantel sees it, a closet Protestant, overseeing Luther’s battles with Rome and exchanging secret letters with Tyndale, the English Bible translator, about the “brutal truth” of the Scriptures. “Why does the Pope have to be in Rome? Cromwell wonders. “Where is it written? Historians have long suspected that Cromwell harbored Protestant sympathies, even before Anne Boleyn’s “tough, fast-breathing, virginal chest” attracted the king’s attention. Mantel, with the license of the novelist, tightens the circle. As a child, Cromwell is present when an old woman is burned at the stake for heresy: “Even after there was nothing more to cry out, the fire was kindled. Years later, he watches in disgust as Thomas More rounds up other heretics to feed the fire. For Mantel, who acknowledges his debt to revisionist scholars, Henry’s divorce is the impetus for Cromwell’s “Tudor Revolution,” as historian Geoffrey Elton called it, through which the British state obtained his independence from foreign and ecclesiastical domination.

In “Wolf Hall”, it is More, the great imaginary of Utopia, who is the ruthless executioner of the English Protestants, using the rack and the ax to straighten the “trembling world”. “Utopia”, Cromwell learns very early, “is not a place where one can live”. More’s refusal to recognize Henry’s marriage was the basis for his canonization in 1935, as well as his portrayal as a hero of conscience in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” and his version. 1966 screen. For Cromwell de Mantel, More is in love with his own martyrdom, with his own theatrical smugness, while Cromwell, more in keeping with the spirit of Bolt’s title, seeks a way out for his old rival.

‘Wolf Hall’ has an epic scale but a lyrical texture. Its more than 500 pages turn quickly, winged and resembling hawks.

There’s a tense moment when More, locked in the Tower of London awaiting trial for treason, claims he hasn’t hurt anyone. Cromwell explodes. What about Bainham, a gentle man whose only sin was being a Protestant? “You confiscated his property, put his poor wife in jail, saw him shake with your own eyes, you locked him in Bishop Stokesley’s cellar, you brought him home for two days chained to a pole, you sent him back to Stokesley, saw him beaten and mistreated for a week, and yet your wickedness was not exhausted: you sent him back to the Tower and had him tortured again. Tortured, Bainham names some of Cromwell’s friends. “This is how the year ends, in a puff of smoke, a veil of human ashes. “

In his long novel on the French Revolution, “A Place of Greater Security,” Mantel also wrote about the damage caused by utopian fixators. And surely, the current outcry over state-sponsored torture has had an effect on both the writing and the imagination of “Wolf Hall.” Yet while Mantel doesn’t embrace any of the archaic flair of so many historical novels – the capitals, the ancient turns of phrase – his book feels firmly anchored in the 16th century. Towards the end of the novel, Cromwell, a long-widower and as usual overworked, “the man in charge of everything”, falls in love with Jane Seymour, Boleyn’s maid of honor, and plans to spend a few days at the gothic-sounding the Seymour estate called Wolf Hall. What could possibly go wrong with such an innocent plan? Maybe in a Mantel suite will tell.


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