Wolf Hall

'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.'
Somewhere in this massive book, Cromwell wonders how anyone can pretend to know him, when he barely knows himself. Mantel approaches her protagonist sideways, mid-way between first and third person, sliding from one to the other. She doesn't know him either, really. Her portrait is well-rounded precisely because it isn't definitive: just a collection of words, actions, thoughts and memories.

What is the significance of Wolf Hall – a setting never visited, only occasionally referred to? It is the house of the Seymour family, Jane Seymour destined to be Henry's third wife, and indirectly, Cromwell's downfall. So there is an irony to Cromwell's decision to holiday there for five days at the end of the book, when he is at the height of his power.

Jane Seymour's father is having an affair with his son's wife, and early in the book the connection is made with Henry taking his brother's widow Katherine as his first wife. Perhaps Wolf Hall serves as a trite encapsulation of Henry's administration – where ministers like Cromwell have to remake England to service the king's whims. But it is a knowingly trite comparison, a hint from Mantel that her fiction bears the same relationship to reality as the Wolf Hall scandal does to Henry's court.

Wikipedia tells me that her book stands as a pointed rejoinder to A Man for All Seasons, a play written in the late 1950s with Sir Thomas More as the hero and Cromwell as the villain. If Wolf Hall has a lesson for today, it is the obvious one that principles in politics are a danger to your health, and that superstition and fanaticism are a danger to everyone.

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