“Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel, and its sequels “Bring up the Bodies” and “The Mirror and the Light” may seem intimidating. But dive in and you will find thrilling, engrossing writing.
Wolf Hall no thanks?
Everyone agrees that Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy is a masterpiece of contemporary literature. But the sheer thickness of the books long put me off. And I’m someone who has read most of Antony Trollope and is working his way through the complete works of Charles Dickens.
Day of the Jackal syndrome
Another problem with the Wolf Hall trilogy is that you know the story before you start. It’s like Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel Day of the Jackal, about an attempted assassination of General de Gaulle. You know from the outset that de Gaulle will survive. Did I want to read three thick novels about Henry the Eighth and his court? Not really.
“Wolf Hall”: a paradigm shift
Then, on 22 September 2022, Hilary Mantel died of a stroke. I learned that all her life she had suffered from the debilitating condition of endometriosis. I discovered that she had written a dozen other books.
Reading the obituaries, I learned more. Mantel was the only novelist to win the Booker Prize (then known as the Man Booker) twice with novels in the same trilogy. Her life was challenging and inspiring. Interviews highlighted her quirkiness. I thought “I have to dip into this, at least.”
Because the books are so thick, I decided not to read critically and note down elegant quotes, as I do for many books. But three-quarters of the way through “Wolf Hall”, I changed my mind. I thought: “this book is extraordinary.”
A modest author’s note
Let’s start with Hilary Mantel’s “author’s note” at the end of “Bring up the Bodies”:
- A mercurial woman, elusive in her lifetime, Anne [Boleyn] is still changing centuries after her death, carrying the projections of those who read and write about her. In this book I try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.
Mantel writes throughout in the voice of Thomas Cromwell, a courtier to Henry VIII who starts off as a blacksmith’s son, learns about life on the continent, returns to England as a tough, smart polymath and works his way to the top.
In the books, Mantel often refers to “He” or “Him” without saying who it is. It is always Cromwell – a frightening, charming, beguiling creation in whose company we are happy to spend thousands of pages.
“Wolf Hall”: the quotations
- Behind the chambers of state are the king’s own rooms, which only his intimates see, where he is served by his gentlemen, and where he can be free of ambassadors and spies.
- [Katharine of Aragon, speaking to Thomas Cromwell about Henry] ‘He is not a man like you, who just packs up his sins in his saddlebags and carries them from country to country, and when they grow too heavy whistles up a mule or two, and soon commands a train of them and a troop of muleteers. Henry may err, but he needs to be forgiven.’
- [Cromwell, reflecting on the invention of printing] He feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month. [Comment: this could almost be a quote from my recent post on the book “The Shallows“, which notes how increased speed in the dissemination of information has always unsettled us]
- [Cromwell, building a base of trusted servants] 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 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, what they alone can do. The boys are astonished by the question, their souls pour out. Perhaps no one has talked to them before. Certainly not their fathers.
- It is Christmas Eve when Alice More comes to see him. There is a thin sharp light, like the edge of an old knife, and in this light Alice looks old.
- [Alice More, speaking of her husband – and men in general, and sex] ‘Don’t think I have no tenderness for him. he didn’t marry me to live like a eunuch. We have had dealings, one time or another.’ She blushes, more angry than shy. ‘And when that is true, you cannot help feeling it, if a man might be cold, if he might be hungry, his flesh being one with yours. You feel to him as you might a child.’
- ‘The law of who owns what – the law generally – has accreted a parasitic complexity – it is like a barnacled hull, a roof slimy with moss.’
- The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.
- Petrarch writes, ‘between one dip of the pen and the next, the time passes: and I hurry, I drive myself, and I speed towards death. We are always dying – I while I write, you while you read, and others while they listen or block their ears; they are all dying.’
“Bring up the Bodies”: the quotations
As with “Wolf Hall”, I fought not to pick too many quotations. The writing is so beautiful and wise, it’s a tough job. But here is my selection:
- He looks at Jane Seymour, as her father directs him. He knows her well from the court, as she was lady-in-waiting to Katherine, the former queen, and to Anne, the queen that is now; she is a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise.
- Full bellies breed gentle manners. The pinch of famine makes monsters.
- ‘Well, you know,’ he says. ‘We can’t go throwing ambassadors out. Because then we don’t get to know anything at all.’
- Karl Heinz said, you are dealing in arms? and he said no, altar cloths. Karl Heinz said, you are as likely to shit rubies as to learn an Englishman’s secrets.
- So here’s the Duke of Norfolk, expecting to be fed. Dressed in his best, or at least what’s good enough for Lambeth Palace, he looks like a piece of rope chewed by a dog, or a piece of gristle left on the side of a trencher. Bright fierce eyes under unruly brows. Hair an iron stubble. His person is meagre, sinewy, and he smells of horses and leather and the armourer’s shop, and mysteriously of furnaces or perhaps of cooling ash: dust-dry, pungent.
- ‘Men will tell you that they are so in love with you that it is making them ill. They will say they have stopped eating and sleeping. They say that they fear unless they can have you they will die. Then, the moment you give in, they get up and walk away and lose all interest.’
- He sensed in Jane Rochford’s tone the peculiar tone of women. They fight with the poor weapons God has bestowed – spite, guile, skill in deceit – and it is likely that in conversations between themselves they trespass in places where a man would never trust his footing. The king’s body is borderless, fluent, like his realm: it is an island building itself or eroding itself, its substance washed out into the waters salt and fresh; it has its shores of polder, its marshy tracts, its reclaimed margins; it has tidal waters, emissions and effusions, quags that slough in and out of the conversations of Englishwomen, and dark mires where only priests should wade, rush lights in their hands.
- He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.
- ‘I know how much everyone has, I know what they can afford. And not only in cash. I have your enemies weighed and assessed. I know what they will pay and what they will baulk at, and believe me, the grief they will expend if they cross me in this matter, it will bankrupt them of tears.’
- Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning you should have the axe in your hand.
- The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.
- When the women strip the queen of her cape she is a tiny figure, a bundle of bones. She does not look like a powerful enemy of England, but looks can deceive. If she could have brought Katherine to this place, she would have.
- ‘Now we shall have peace in England,’ Wriothesley says. A phrase runs through his head – was it Thomas More’s? – ‘the peace of the hen coop when the fox has run home.’
Inspiration and pleasure
If you haven’t read Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies, I hope you find these quotations inspire you to read the books. If you’ve read them already, perhaps they will remind you of the sensuous pleasure of the text. Comments most welcome.