By Charles Matthews

Sunday, March 28, 2010

1. "Wolf Hall," by Hilary Mantel, pp. 3-13

Part I, I: "Across the Narrow Sea," Putney, 1500.
The young Thomas Cromwell is beaten senseless by his father, Walter. His sister, Kat, and her husband, Morgan Williams, clean him up and give him shelter, but he decides to leave Putney and seek his fortune abroad, perhaps as a soldier. The historical Thomas Cromwell was born in 1485, which makes the fictional Thomas's claim to be 15 pretty close to the mark. 

Mantel uses the historical present and usually narrates from Thomas's angle of vision, reporting his thoughts.
"I wonder what I've married into," Morgan Williams says.
But really, this is just something Morgan says; some men have a habitual sniffle, some women have a headache, and Morgan has this wonder. The boy doesn't listen to him; he thinks, if my father did that to my mother, so long dead, then maybe he killed her? No, surely he'd have been taken up for it; Putney's lawless, but you don't get away with murder. Kat's what he's got for a mother: crying for him, rubbing the back of his neck.
Neat exposition there of the mother's long-ago death.

One pitfall for the historical novelist is dialogue: too much archaism and it sounds artificial, too much modern idiom and it sounds condescending. So far, Mantel has managed to make her characters sound believably early-16th-century:
"I'd say the magistrates have had their bellyful," Morgan says. "If he's not watering his ale he's running illegal beasts on the common, if he's not despoiling the common he's asaulting an officer of the peace, if he's not drunk he's dead drunk, and if he's not dead before his time there's no justice in this world."
Mantel has Thomas echo Morgan's string of consequences in his own thoughts: "I've had enough of this. If he gets after me again I'm going to I'm going to kill him, and if I kill him they'll hang me, and if they're going to hang me I want a better reason."

But it's also clear that Mantel doesn't intend to limit herself to Thomas's point of view. In this passage about Kat, some of the details are out of the usual range for even a precocious 15-year-old boy:
She's not crying for him, because nobody, he thinks, will ever cry for him, God didn't cut him out that way. She's crying for her idea of what life should be like: Sunday after church, all the sisters, sisters-in-law, wives kissing and patting, swatting at each other's children and t the same time loving them and rubbing their little round heads, women comparing and swapping babies, and all the men gathering and talking business, wool, yarn, lengths, shipping, bloody Flemings, fishing rights, brewing, annual turnover, nice timely information, favor-for-favor, little sweeteners, little retainers, my attorney says.... That's what it should be like, married to Morgan Williams, with the Williamses being a big family in Putney.... But somehow it's not been like that. Walter has spoiled it all.

And so Thomas's character -- observant, tough, resourceful -- begins to emerge. He surprises Morgan by speaking Welsh: "All those days he'd spent haging around the Williamses' households: did they think he'd just come for dinner?" Thomas Cromwell: born to spy. He's still naive: He sets off for France because "France is where they have wars." But his ingenuity -- "If you help load a cart you get a ride in it, as often as not. It gives him to think how bad people are at loading carts" -- and his adaptability -- "He'd watched a man doing the three-card trick, and when he learned it he set up for himself" -- will obviously get him far.

And so he hitches himself to "three elderly Lowlanders" by giving them a high sign so they aren't cheated when they bribe a port officer. And he's surprised when he learns that there are "people in this world who are not cruel to their children."

Crossing to Calais, he kisses the "holy medal" Kat has given him "for luck." And "drops it; it whispers into the water."

No comments:

Post a Comment