Monday, June 29, 2009

At Wolf Hall

Having recently finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, one of this last weekend’s small excitements was a visit to Wolf Hall, Wiltshire.

My images are two composites: aspects of the monument to Jane Seymour’s father John in the church at Great Bedwyn (moved there in 1590 by his grandson, the memorial states, from Eston Priory Church, which had by then fallen into ruins), along with a window there containing some armorial stained glass derived from the former Wolf Hall. Sir John lived to see his daughter Queen of England, but not to be a grandfather to a future King, dying a couple of months before his daughter’s pregnancy was announced. Of his sons, one became Lord Protector, and had to allow the execution of his brother Thomas, who had plotted to capture the young prince, and marry the young Elizabeth Tudor.

The other image comprises two views of the present day Wolf Hall itself, which seems perhaps to be an 18th century house with large Victorian accretions. The rear view is framed by a catalpa tree – and there is what seems to be an abandoned walled garden, as there should be in a lost domain like this. The original house of the Seymour family has vanished, though there are apparently brick lined tunnels running from the present buildings to where the old house stood. A 16th century house down the gently sloping valley side to what is now the Kennet and Avon Canal survives, and Henry VIII is supposed to have stayed there while on his first visit to Wolf Hall with Mantel’s hero, Thomas Cromwell, in 1535. Back then, the (Hampshire) River Avon rose close by the house, and flowed west into the Vale of Pewsey.

I talked with a couple of the tenants occupying parts of the Manor (and they are currently, should you want to take up what would seem likely to prove an interesting stay in a house full of associations of one kind or other, looking for a new sharer). I was told that the landlady was currently reading Wolf Hall itself, which ends precisely when Cromwell (imagined by Mantel to have his own eyes on Jane) works out that he can escape Henry’s demands on his time for a visit of some days to Jane Seymour’s family home.

Mantel’s remarkable book prompted all this literary and historical tourism, of course. There’s so much to admire in it: the intelligently hostile portrait of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII seen through the eyes of his brilliant counsellor, and I liked the way the narrative is paced, making us all wait, as they did, for the product of Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy. Then there’s the gracefully lucid writing. Mantel admits scarcely any archaisms: her point is partly that Thomas Cromwell was a modern man, interested in information and its storage, acutely aware of how money works and makes all things possible: so he cannot be distanced by what he says every time he speaks. She has, in line with this policy of making Cromwell our contemporary, partly secularized a man who was probably far more in league with the reformers than the sympathetic fellow-traveller depicted here.

In the second volume, Mantel has to repeat what she did so well in A Place of Greater Safety, show idealism and remarkable personal capacities turning to bloody oppression, to unleash the murderer latent in her measured and highly intelligent Cromwell (the inner murderer glimpsed in the novel by Cromwell in Hans Holbein’s portrait). Her hero has, in the second part, to set about destroying Anne Boleyn and her circle to save his own position. The axe and the block will feature like the guillotine did for the French revolutionaries in the earlier novel: Mantel’s characters cannot be unaware of their likely fate, how close it always is, how they can appease the terrible wraith with other people’s blood for only a limited time.

As it is, in this volume about his rise to power, Wolf Hall deploys Cromwell as a very gifted novelist’s ideal protagonist: a master of language, either in persuasion, threat, or charm, and a witty appreciator of costumes, food and style. Cromwell here is also a man preoccupied with memory - both haunted by his own memories of having been the child of a brutal father, and the adult administrator determined to possess, so as to augment his own prodigious powers of recall, a mechanical memory theatre. So always he allows Mantel to demonstrate her own prodigious gifts of imagination and language.

1 comment:

Minnie said...

Fascinating post; thank you!
Am two thirds of the way through 'Wolf Hall', finding it a vivid and compelling read. This is a huge relief, as I loved 'A Place of Greater Safety', was relatively underwhelmed by Mantel's subsequent work and was therefore hoping that she had once again found her form in 'WH'. She has! As you say, tho': wait 'till the sequel ...
Greetings from an itinerant Brit in France.