Our culture loves a good player. From Casanova to Bruce Wayne, Cherie to Carrie Bradshaw, we’ve all spent our lives admiring those who love getting laid. And there’s one particular man of the British boudoir that we just can’t get rid of: Henry VIII.
Where he was once known as a fat guy with high blood pressure and enough testosterone fit for an elephant–as recently as 2003 he was played by not-so-hot Ray Winstone in a UK miniseries–today King Henry VIII is hunky and multilayered, a misunderstood, yet hot, piece of man-meat. Look no further than Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Showtime’s The Tudors and Eric Bana in 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl. In the 16th century, Hollywood-style, all the girls have perfect skin and bursting bosoms; the men tight abs and cheekbones you could shave a ham on.
The film industry has been aided in recent years by the chick-lit market being inundated with the titles of Philippa Gregory, such as The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance, that romanticize the lives of the wives of Henry VIII during his stormy reign. The same has happened to the lives and worlds of Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters.
Why are we reaching–groping, really–back to a time when people rarely bathed and knew nothing of dental care, were burned at the stake for heretical beliefs and decapitated for treason? I think we just like our erotica served up in the guise of a period piece. That way we can get our jollies off and say we’ve learned something.
Well, Hilary Mantel will have nothing of that frivolous nonsense.
Wolf Hall, published last October and recipient of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, has captured the eyes of the few literate people left in America. It’s currently hanging out in the 80s on Amazon’s bestseller list, buried beneath all the conservative ideologues and diet-fad tripe our culture buys when TV tells us to.
And it should be selling: despite clocking in at about the half the length of Leo Tolstoy’s classic, Mantel’s masterpiece may just be our generation’s War and Peace.
Like Tolstoy’s 1,000-plus pager, Mantel’s epic focuses its attention mostly on a high society everyman. While in War and Peace there’s a main trio of wealthy characters we follow through battles and brief encounters with royalty, in Wolf Hall there’s just one: Thomas Cromwell. From the boot soles of his abusive father in 1500 as a boy to his time as Henry’s Reformation wingman throughout the 1530s, Cromwell is a strong, funny, and often brave figure that has finally–with Mantel’s help–received his spotlight in history.
Oh, you recognize his name? That’s because he’s the handsome guy played by James Frain in The Tudors. He’s always dressed in a black cloak and taking orders from Henry. Now turn off the TV and pick up this book.
Like the characters in War and Peace, we get to know Cromwell on a personal basis: in his bustling household, through his relentless work ethic, and his friendships and fatherly devotion to his assistants. Yet, it’s Mantel’s quietest moments that make the book so real, such as when Cromwell’s wife and daughters perish from disease, leaving him haunted and slightly melancholy for the rest of the novel.
Having come from nothing in the eyes of high society, Cromwell deals with discrimination from the members of Henry’s court with a cool, cautious manner:
Sometimes, when Chapuys [the Spanish ambassador] has finished digging up Walter’s bones and making his own life unfamiliar to him, he feels almost impelled to speak in defense of his 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.
We also see the justification for his role in the Reformation of the Church of England, from watching a Lollard–a critic of traditional church in the 1500s–be burned to death when he’s young to his devotion midway through his career to the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell’s even-tempered observation of the world leads him to sympathize with the persecuted.
And this is what truly makes Cromwell loveable: he’s an ally of the downtrodden and the open-minded, even a forebear of the movement for the separation of church and state. Consider this passage in which he is taking on the insidious Thomas More:
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” [he] says. “A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don’t try to make it simple.”
Here, then, is a hero we can appreciate. Forget the kings and queens, the popes and saints, the girls who flock to Henry’s bed when he demands their presence. Their stories–just like Napoleon’s in War and Peace–are merely about narcissism, power, and deceit. The true lesson we can take from the reign of Henry VIII is that one man, brave and smart, can work his way up from a life of no fortune and no given future to the ear of one of the earth’s most powerful men. And that this man, Thomas Cromwell, can help change the world for the better.
What we have, then, is a novel that finally cements the story of Henry VIII–the real, fat one that all Wolf Hall‘s characters watch grow in size–in the same way War and Peace does Napoleon’s. And for good reason too, since both stories are highly relevant. Tolstoy’s novel reminds us how lives are disrupted and destroyed by war, how power corrupts men to do foolish things, such as choosing to invade and pillage another country for monetary gain. And Mantel’s novel gives us the story of a country struggling to overcome archaic religious oppression with one man and one king who are willing to fight against it, regardless of the consequences. Without a single sex scene!
These are stories echoing through time, reliving themselves in our present day. It’s novelists like Mantel, working in the tradition of Tolstoy’s historical literary fiction, who artfully display our past so we, hopefully, won’t be doomed to not take notice and, without fail, once more repeat it again.