Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

Who Was the Man For All Seasons? (BOOK REVIEW)

If you’ve seen the unforgettable film starring Paul Scofield, you know the answer to that question: The man for all seasons was Thomas More — Lord Chancellor of the realm and the man who stood between King Henry VIII and his heart’s desire, Anne Boleyn — for which he paid with his life.

The villain in A Man For All Seasons was Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell, who was Henry’s closest adviser, was portrayed as a Machiavellian political schemer who worked with the king and others to betray this man of conscience and principle and send him to the Tower and his execution.

In Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, Wolf Hall, Cromwell gets a much more nuanced treatment. Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is far more fully human, which is to say, morally complex rather than a one-note cartoon villain. He is ambitious and ruthless, a consummate political operator, but he is also a man capable of deep love and compassion — for his influential mentor and friend, Cardinal Wolsey; for his wife, Liz Wikys and their three children. There is also the suggestion that Cromwell’s single-minded, almost obsessive rise to power was in part driven by his need to cope with some appallingly tragic personal losses: Liz, his wife; two of their children; and one of his sisters died of “the sweating disease,” which apparently was a form of the dreaded plague. His response was to speak of his grief to no one and bury himself in work.

Thomas More, on the other hand, comes off in Wolf Hall as an ideologue and a fanatic: merciless and unbending in his religious zealotry; cold and contemptuous toward his wife; and utterly humorless. In the words of Marvin O’Connell, author of a critical reexamination of  Robert Bolt’s portrayal of More,  “Conscience for St. Thomas More was the right to be right, not the right to be wrong.”

From a literary standpoint, Wolf Hall is exceptionally well-written. Mantel is fearless about experimenting with language and point of view. Linda Wolfe’s review of the book at the National Book Critics Circle blog — and this was actually the review that got me to read the book; I hadn’t even heard of it before that — describes Mantel’s writing style:

But it’s not Mantel’s revisionist portrait of Cromwell that makes the book so original. It’s her style. Mantel is an experimenter, a daredevil. She uses the third person to tell her tale, a gambit that despite all odds succeeds in making “he” as intimate as the “I” in a first-person memoir. The reader is thrust deep within the head of “the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell”; the tricky turbulent world of Tudor England is seen entirely from behind his ever-watchful eyes.

The dialogue, another of Mantel’s hazardous yet victorious undertakings, sounds at once both appropriate to the period and yet at times boldly sassy and contemporary. “It seems such a long time since we had a baby in the house,” Cromwell says to a woman with whom he is having an affair. “Don’t look at me,” she retorts. “You have a private army, Tommaso,” an Italian friend says to Cromwell. “I suppose you have to watch your back.”

Cromwell’s own thoughts are for the most part recounted in elegant prose. “It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal,” he muses. “A man’s power is in the half-light. In the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people; the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.” Dangerous men are not the unprincipled kind, he speculates, because their actions can be calculated; the ones to look out for are “Men who say they understand you, whose embrace is so tight and ungiving they will carry you over the abyss.” Yet on occasion Cromwell talks to himself in the kind of shorthand in which thoughts actually occur. “Divide and rule,” he thinks about Henry’s technique of reigning, but in a what-the-hell afterthought says to himself, “But then, he rules anyway.” “Witnesses?” he thinks to himself when he overhears some potentially useful gossip about Anne Boleyn. “Dates?” There’s even a train of thought that ends with today’s slangy single word sentence, “Whatever.”

I did not, as Wolfe says she did, start reading the book all over from the beginning when I got close to the end, but I don’t find it at all surprising that someone would do that with Wolf Hall. It’s a joyous, decadently delicious read — I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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This entry was posted on March 31, 2010 by in Book Reviews, Literary.
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