SUMMER SNIPPETS: ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel
While we’re talking about figures undeservedly maligned by history – possibly -- allow me to introduce to you (if you haven’t already been introduced) a new view of Thomas Cromwell—a man for the modern age.
An apprentice to Cardinal Wolsey, the sometimes benevolent sometimes bullying Thomas Cromwell (right, in a classic painting by Holbein) was the advisor to King Henry VII through one Reformation, three marriages and many royal successes (and successors). He is a villain however in Robert Bolt’s Man For All Seasons, and hence—for the generation that venerated that play—a villain in real life.
Hilary Mantel sought to overturn that notion in her novel, Wolf Hall, the first of a first-person trilogy portraying a worldly-wise master technocrat-–the crafty, capable power behind Henry’s middle-period throne. Our Cromwell has read his Machiavelli, Mantel tells us…
He has got Niccolò Machiavelli's book, Principalities; it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands.
…and the layers of meaning in that sentence tell us much about both men—and about Mantel’s multi-layered writing. But Mantel’s Thomas would have much to teach Machiavelli …
Mantel’s Cromwell is himself a self-made success, rising from his poor beginnings as an oft-beaten blacksmith’s son in the quickest way possible in Tudor England: through business success and marriage, in Cromwell’s case both combined .
“When he got back to London he knew he could turn the business around. Still, he needed to think of the day-to-day. ‘I've seen your stock,’ he said to [his future father-in-law] Wykys. ‘I've seen your accounts. Now show me your clerks.’ That was the key, of course, the key that would unlock profit. People are always the key, and if you can look them in the face you can be pretty sure if they're honest and up to the job. He tossed out the dubious chief clerk – saying, you go, or we go to law – and replaced him with a stammering junior, a boy he'd been told was stupid. Timid, was all he was; he looked over his work each night, mildly and wordlessly indicating each error and omission, and in four weeks the boy was both competent and keen, and had taken to following him about like a puppy. Four weeks invested, and a few days down at the docks, checking who was on the take: by the year end, Wykys was back in profit.
“Wykys stumped away after he showed him the figures. ‘Lizzie?’ he yelled. ‘Lizzie? Come downstairs.’ She came down. ‘You want a new husband. Will he do?’ She stood and looked him up and down. ‘Well, Father. You didn't pick him for his looks.’ To him, her eyebrows raised, she said, ‘Do you want a wife?’ ‘Should I leave you to talk it over?’ old Wykys said. He seemed baffled: seemed to think they should sit down and write a contract there and then. Almost, they did. Lizzie wanted children; he wanted a wife with city contacts and some money behind her. They were married in weeks. Gregory arrived within the year. Bawling, strong, one hour old, plucked from the cradle: he kissed the infant's fluffy skull and said, I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me. For what's the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?”
Mantel always likes to include a moral, or a quip.
“How simple it would be, if he were allowed to reach down and shake some straight answers out of Norris [, a king’s man come to threaten harm to Cromwell’s cardinal]. But it's not simple; this is what the world and the cardinal conspire to teach him.
“Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don't get on by being original. You don't get on by being bright. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that's what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all, these circumstances are extreme…”
“He looks down from a window [at the small groups of Londoners beginning to gather outside his gate], and feels he recognises them; they are sons of the men who every autumn stood around gossiping and warming themselves by the door of his father's forge. They are boys like the boy he used to be: restless, waiting for something to happen.
“He looks down at them and arranges his face. Erasmus says that you must do this each morning before you leave your house: ‘put on a mask, as it were.’ ”
The hero of Man For All Seasons was Thomas More [right, in Holbein’s famous portrait, now curiously housed]—executed by Henry VIII (with the edge of an old axe) for refusing to countenance his (Henry’s) divorce. Mantel’s More is altogether less heroic, and more the sort of man to whose family he was dictator, and who as Chancellor would happily get hold of you and shut you in his cellar. “And all we will hear is the sound of screaming.”
“It is Christmas Eve when Alice More [Thomas’s widow] comes to see him. There is a thin sharp light, like the edge of an old knife, and in this light Alice looks old. He greets her like a princess, and leads her into one of the chambers he has had repanelled and painted, where a great fire leaps up a rebuilt chimney. The air smells of pine boughs. ‘You keep the feast here?’ Alice has made an effort for him; pinned her hair back fiercely, under a bonnet sewn with seed pearls. ‘Well! When I came here before it was a musty old place. My husband used to say,’ and he notes the past tense, ‘my husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’ ‘Did he talk a lot about locking me in dungeons?’
“ ‘It was only talk.’ ”
The asides can be wonderfully wise.
“The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.”
“There cannot be new things in England. There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old. To be trusted, new men must forge themselves an ancient pedigree, like Walter's, or enter into the service of ancient families. Don't try to go it alone, or they'll think you're pirates.”
“Sometimes … he feels almost impelled to speak in defence of his [child-beating] father, his childhood. But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. 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.”
“[Cardinal] ‘Wolsey always said that the making of a treaty is the treaty. It doesn't matter what the terms are, just that there are terms. It's the goodwill that matters. When that runs out, the treaty is broken, whatever the terms say.’ ”
“It's all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it's no good at all if you don't have a plan for tomorrow.’
“When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.”
The blacksmith’s son threatens lords by pointing out where power lies in the modern age.
“‘My lord,’ he says. ‘You have said what you have to say. Now listen to me. You are a man whose money is almost spent. I am a man who knows how you have spent it. You are a man who has borrowed all over Europe. I am a man who knows your creditors. One word from me, and your debts will be called in.’
“‘Oh, and what can they do?’ Percy says. ‘Bankers have no armies.’
“‘Neither have you armies, my lord, if your coffers are empty… Let's say I will rip your life apart. Me and my banker friends.
“How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot. ‘I picture you without money and title,’ he says. ‘I picture you in a hovel, wearing homespun, and bringing home a rabbit for the pot. I picture your lawful wife Anne Boleyn [whom the king now covets] skinning and jointing this rabbit. I wish you every happiness.’ ”
“The gentlemen of England apply for places in his household now, for their sons and nephews and wards, thinking they will learn statecraft with him, how to write a secretary's hand and deal with translation from abroad, and what books one ought to read to be a courtier. He takes it seriously, the trust placed in him; he takes gently from the hands of these noisy young persons their daggers, their pens, and he talks to them, finding out behind the passion and pride of young men of fifteen or twenty what they are really worth, what they value and would value under duress. You learn nothing about men by snubbing them and crushing their pride. You must ask them what it is they can do in this world, that they alone can do.”
PS: The double-Booker prize winning Mantel is currently making headlines, or having them made for her, for attacking the odious over-attraction to royalty, saying in a recent speech:
When [Princess Kate’s] pregnancy became public she had been visiting her old school, and had picked up a hockey stick and run a few paces for the camera. BBC News devoted a discussion to whether a pregnant woman could safely put on a turn of speed while wearing high heels. It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow, but that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken. And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.