Today, my virtual book group met to discuss Wolf Hall. As the first woman to win two Man Booker Prizes and the first author of a book and its sequel to both win Bookers, Hilary Mantel is causing quite a lot of buzz in the literary world. As a complete history nerd, this Book One in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy was also a great pick for me. I’ve read quite a few books (fiction and non) on the Tudor reign, and what always fascinates me is how many different perspectives there are on the dichotomy of good and evil. So many characters, so many power struggles, so many conflicting perspectives on right and wrong—which is why there were also so many beheadings. Across the board, though, Thomas Cromwell is almost always a villain, which made Mantel’s focus on him especially fascinating.
One of the major themes we discussed today was the power of narrative and its pervasiveness throughout the novel. Again, Henry VIII’s reign was fraught with discord and feuding factions—the narrative is unclear, unorganized, and open to rewriting. Cromwell himself manipulates others’ narratives throughout the course of the story, attempting to shape the amorphous facts of reality into a cohesive and sensical narrative.
As one friend mentioned, Cromwell seems a true 20th-century man, at times out of his element. He’s a common man motivated by upward mobility, whose personal ethics are sometimes at odds with his governmental role. He takes every opportunity to give others a chance to save themselves from a brutal fate—during the climactic pages when he interviews Thomas More and judges him as treasonous for refusing to swear Henry VIII as the head of the church, Cromwell constantly tries to convince him to just give the king the minimum. He explains that just saying the words will be enough, just signing More’s name—there is no follow-up action required, it doesn’t matter what More actually believes, he can have his fingers crossed for all Cromwell or the king care. He’s unable to understand More’s refusal to do so, a stance which convinces Cromwell that More deserves his fate.
“I have never understood where the line is drawn, between sacrifice and self-slaughter.”
“Christ drew it.”
“You don’t see anything wrong with the comparison?”
Obviously, Cromwell’s attitude is mirrored by the religious and political thrusts of the time. Martin Luther and King Henry, though for conflicting reasons and at odds with each other, are each attempting to redefine the Christian church, to rework the gospel narrative. They seek to take away the immense power of the Church, the emphasis on a need for an interpreter for the common people. As Henry’s chief minister, Cromwell is charged with the task of distributing this message to the English, spreading the Act of Supremacy that More so objects to.
It doesn’t, as some say, make the king head of the church. It states that he is head of the church, and always has been. If people don’t like new ideas, let them have old ones. . . I am all for clarity.
Cromwell’s stance for clarity is certainly a precarious one. While I found the middle of WH slow going at times, it certainly picked up toward the end, and I can’t wait to read the second in the trilogy and Mantel’s newest Booker winner, Bring Up the Bodies.