I have just finished my third reading of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and am trying to work out why it is so seductive. Once started, I can hardly put it down – despite the weight of the hardback edition I acquired so long ago. Perhaps it is that she has created in Thomas Cromwell a character we’d like to recognize from our own secret lives: one who is strong enough to survive vicious brutality, even from one’s own father; who is determined enough to escape and explore the world, and clever enough to learn numerous languages, and understand such varied businesses as banking, commerce, military campaigns and law; and who then is astute enough to apply this knowledge to become rich and powerful; even to become confidant of the king.
But Cromwell’s appeal is greater than simply that of knowledge and power. He is loyal to friends, to his employers, kind to animals and children, considerate of women, generous to his household and to those who come to him in need. But we know that he is widely hated, that his gentle son fears him for he has not the gifts of his father; and we know that Cromwell bears grudges on behalf of others for years, until he can take revenge. His vengeance is most strongly shown in the next book, Bring Up the Bodies, where the men accused of being Anne Boleyn’s lovers are those who mocked Cardinal Wolsey in a masque at court some six years earlier.The Tudor period was a cruel one, and Cromwell was a key player. So part of Mantel’s skill is that she makes you feel the ambiguities in his character, appreciate the paradoxes in his actions.
Mark Rylance as Cromwell in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall brilliantly conveys the complexities of the man. Not an easy task. The relatively short screen play covers two weighty volumes of Mantel’s subtle writing, so we cannot see him as a private person leading a life outside the court. And Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn is extraordinarily good at conveying a woman who can play seductively sexy when she chooses, but who is as ruthless as any of the men and knows exactly what she is doing. Mantel’s Anne is so bad-tempered and bitchy it is difficult sometimes to understand the passion that motivated the king in the first place, but very easy to understand how he might come to regret his choice.
The TV series is a glorious adjunct to Mantel’s books, but for me, the books are prime. She is an astonishing writer, skilful, intelligent and psychologically strong. I await volume 3 with impatience.