The Secret Life of Wolves: Hilary Mandel’s “Wolf Hall”

I heard an interview once (the source of which has since fallen prey to time and my unreliable memory) with the late, great Madeleine L’Engle.  The great woman of magical-letters says that she created Meg’s family to be perfect, because her family never was.

Margaret Murry, for those who do not know her intimately (as I do), is the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time, and a recurring star in many a L’Engle novel to follow.   She is loving, and clever, but perhaps a bit too clever–nerdy and self-conscience, at least in her youth.  Most important to her story, and those of her brothers, and children: her dedication to her family knows no bounds.
Although Meg is hardly a flawless character, I cannot imagine a young girl (or boy) who could not relate to her, just a little bit.  And how many of us, even now, wouldn’t love to be a child of the Murry family? There is so much love there, and also comfort, between the magic and mystery: isn’t that what we all aim for, in our families?  We could all cross tesseracts, and vanquish the forces of entropy, if we slept in the attic of that big old house, and found angels in the garden.

Hilary Mandel might have read L’Engle as a child, or perhaps she, too, wished for that perfectly quirky (and happy) family. Either way, Mandel created in Austin Friars a family commune to rival that of any childhood ideal.  This great London house serves as the backdrop for much of Wolf Hall, the first in her “Cromwell Trilogy,” but its significance goes beyond that of mere setting: the beauty, order, morality, and festive warmth of the family home is the incarnation of Mandel’s hero–that great bogey-man of Tudor England, Thomas Cromwell.

One of many unflattering portraits of Thomas Cromwell as the Earl of Essex, by Hans Holbein the Younger

While history has painted Cromwell as a power-hungry upstart, a bully and a villain, Mandel turns this image on it’s head.  Cromwell is whip-smart but thoughtful, strong but moral, loving and generous, and fiercely loyal, to a fault.

The book opens in England, in the year 1500.  Cromwell as a young and hulking 15-year-old, is on the ground and bloody, beaten by his father, the blacksmith, “like a sheet of metal.”  He survives this beating, as he has countless before it, and escapes his childhood home for the continent, where he is made a man.  The details of this making are vague, yet key: he learns war in France, politics and accounting in Italy, and business in Antwerp.  By the time he returns to England, he reads Latin,  speaks French, Italian, German, Spanish, Flemish, and perhaps more, stranger tongues.  He has clinked glasses with the Medici, fallen in love in Belgium, and maybe killed a man.  The details of these adventures we may never know, but we come to know the man behind the stories: he loves his wife and daughters, adopts children (and dogs, cats, and heretics), keeps copies of banned books in his library, plants orchards, commissions art, and feeds the poor, hungry, and homeless outside the gates of his ever-expanding fortress within London.

The message is clear: do not underestimate Thomas Cromwell.  But Mandel’s hero, and narrator, is more than impressive: he is human, and lovable, and charmingly real.

The narrative skips, in sparkling and glorious present tense, from Putney to Versailles, from Yorkshire to London.  The story is so well-known (it was in fact the seemingly-overwrought nature of the subject matter that kept me from picking up this book until now), and although an encounter with charming, crazy Henry and his Anne Boleyn is always a bit of a thrill, it is in the less-gilded characters, the subtler details of politics and poetry, that Wolf Hall truly shines.  The saintly (and sainted) Thomas Moore is a cold, calculating, violent, fish of a man, and his chilly banquet halls seem to echo with the screams of tortured Protestants.  The Duke of Norfolk is a curmudgeonly pirate; a young, lascivious lute player named Mark hangs around Anne’s rooms like a slowly-rotting fruit; Thomas Cranmer is guileless to a fault, despite his part in the religious-political chess game with Rome; Cromwell’s daughter wore peacock-feather wings, dusted in gilt, for the family Christmas pageant.

And through all of this flushed, tangible humanity, Thomas Cromwell wades into the mire that is Henry’s court, and begins to sink, very slowly.

I have read that Mandel meant to write only one book, but after a bit Cromwell’s relationship with Moore, and his very character itself, got away with her, and she decided to make it a trilogy, just to fit everything in.  I can imagine that in her subsequent novels we will see the strong, lovable Cromwell disintegrate, to be replaced by a flawed, tragic creature, doomed to fall, as he has felled those before him.  Because I came to truly love him, throughout this first book, I cannot anticipate that inevitable ruin.  But I doubt I will be able to look away.

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3 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Wolves: Hilary Mandel’s “Wolf Hall””

  1. I love your take on Wolf Hall, and Cromwell himself. I have read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and Mantel conveys what was happening in Henry VIII’s English court, at least correctly based on the historical timeline. She did a great amount of research on Cromwell and she did a great job portraying many sides of him. Her portrayal of the other characters in the books, like Moore and Norfolk, was very good and very entertaining. I actually did a review of her second book in the Cromwell Trilogy, Bring Up The Bodies, on my blog. I listened to the audiobook and I think it brings a little more life to the words when it is reading to you.

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