I’m only about a fourth of the way through Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and it’s already clear why it won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The writing is superb and the characterization rings so true…particularly for the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell (always referred to as “he” in this book). He is mind, flesh and blood fully formed. And the dialogue snaps. Here’s a terrific scene with the Duke of Norfolk as Norfolk is making it clear that Cardinal Wolsey is on his way out in terms of being in the king’s good graces:
The duke is now approaching sixty years old, but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an ax head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs’ bones. “Marry!” he says, for an oath, and “By the Mass!,” and sometimes takes out one of his medals or charms from wherever it is hung about his person, and kisses it in a fervor, calling on some saint or martyr to stop his current rage getting the better of him. “St. Jude give me patience!” he will shout; probably he has mixed him up with Job, whom he heard about in a story when he was a little boy at the knee of his first priest. It is hard to imagine the duke as a little boy, or in any way younger or different from the self he presents now. He thinks the Bible a book unnecessary for laypeople, though he understands priests make some use of it. He thinks book-reading an affectation altogether, and wishes there were less of it at court. His niece is always reading, Anne Boleyn, which is perhaps why she is unmarried at the age of twenty-eight. He does not see why it’s a gentleman’s business to write letters; there are clerks for that.
Now he fixes an eye, red and fiery. “Cromwell, I am content you are a burgess in the Parliament.”
He bows his head. “My lord.”
“I spoke to the king for you and he is also content. You will take his instructions in the Commons. And mine.”
“Will they be the same, my lord?”
The duke scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, “Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a . . . person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.”
He waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. He is a person, he is a presence. He knows how to edge blackly into a room so that you don’t see him; but perhaps those days are over.
“Smile away,” says the duke. “Wolsey’s household is a nest of vipers. Not that . . .” he touches a medal, flinching, “God forbid I should . . .”
Compare a prince of the church to a serpent. The duke wants the cardinal’s money, and he wants the cardinal’s place at the king’s side: but then again, he doesn’t want to burn in Hell. He walks across the room; he slaps his hands together; he rubs them; he turns. “The king is preparing to quarrel with you, master. Oh yes. He will favor you with an interview because he wishes to understand the cardinal’s affairs, but he has, you will learn, a very long and exact memory, and what he remembers, master, is when you were a burgess of the Parliament before this, and how you spoke against his war.”
“I hope he doesn’t think still of invading France.”
“God damn you! What Englishman does not! We own France. We have to take back our own.” A muscle in his cheek jumps; he paces, agitated; he turns, he rubs his cheek; the twitch stops, and he says, in a voice perfectly matter-of-fact, “Mind you, you’re right.”
He waits. “We can’t win,” the duke says, “but we have to fight as if we can. Hang the expense. 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–“
“Are you a butcher’s son?”
“Are you really? Shoe a horse?”
He shrugs. “If I were put to it, my lord. But I can’t imagine–“
“You can’t? What can you imagine? A battlefield, a camp, the night before a battle–can you imagine that?”
“I was a soldier myself.”
“Were you so? Not in any English army, I’ll be bound. There, you see.” The duke grins, quite without animosity. “I knew there was something about you. I knew I didn’t like you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Where were you?”
The duke whistles. “Wrong side, lad.”
“So I noticed.”
I could go on and on, but then you wouldn’t buy the book for yourselves. And you should. You really should. All of us who write (or ever intend to write) historical fiction particularly should. This is HF at its best!
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