Show Hide image

Wolf Hall

Historical novels set in 16th-century England – especially accounts of the marital woes of Henry VIII – usually follow a Hollywood-friendly template of heaving bodices, well-filled hose and pointy-bearded intriguers.

In the hands of Hilary Mantel, Tudor kitsch becomes something darker and less digestible. Wolf Hall takes a forensic slice through a nation caught between feudalism and capitalism, the Middle Ages and modernity, Catholicism and the revolutionary doctrines emerging from the Continent.

Memories of the disastrous dynastic wars of the previous century are still fresh, and fears of another are growing. As there is little national, so there is no personal, security: noble and commoner alike are only ever a step away from their legal transformation into a mangled corpse or a smouldering residue of “mud, grease, charred bone”.

Mantel’s hero for this age of uncertainty is Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to one of the highest offices of the land before fatally offending Henry himself.

The novel, largely set from 1527 onwards, traces the crest of his career – his elevation from trusted servant of Cardinal Wolsey to the cardinal’s own position as Henry’s most loyal servant. Cromwell, whose reputation as a villainous schemer was cemented in A Man for All Seasons, seems a perverse choice of hero. But this Cromwell is resolutely modern: a lawyer, accountant, merchant, arbitrator and inventive provider of what would now be called financial services.

In the midst of superstition, corruption and brutality, he is a champion of reason and – unlike other, less scrupulous members of the nobility – of the rule of law. Mantel also turns his rival Thomas More’s reputation on its head; he is less a saint than a sneering fanatic who bullies his wife and courts his own execution.

Much of Cromwell’s polish is acquired in the service of Wolsey, an irresistible figure, “like a great leopard”, comfortable, charming and humane, who will “burn books, but not men”.

The cardinal’s fall from favour in 1529 thrusts Cromwell into a court consumed by manoeuv­ring to extricate Henry from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and England from its duty of obedience to the pope.

Wolf Hall gives an intricate but absorbing account of the tussle between the vested interests around the jilted queen and the rising favourite, Anne Boleyn, led by Anne’s uncle the Duke of Norfolk. The verbal fencing of court life plays to Mantel’s own biting humour: Boleyn, “a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes”, develops a reluctant respect for Cromwell when he replies: “You may be, I hardly know you,” to her sarcastic suggestion that she is “a simple person”.

Mantel’s last novel, Beyond Black, was a dark comedy about mediums and spiritualism, and Wolf Hall’s characters are similarly prey to charlatanry and obfuscation. Wolsey advises his protégé to “find out what people wear under their clothes”: discoveries that invariably reflect the cruelties and superstitions of the age. The Duke of Norfolk rattles when he moves because of scores of concealed holy medals and relics, More “wears a jerkin of horsehair”, and after Wolsey’s death in 1530, his servant finds another such instrument of mortification beneath the cardinal’s sumptuous robes – a horsehair belt.

Thomas Cromwell finds all this alternately sad and ridiculous. Mantel garlands him with enlightened virtues, some of which verge on the anachronistic: he loves dogs, is a Europhile with a taste for torta di funghi, and observes to Henry that overhunting has wiped out England’s bears, wolves and wild boar. He is a kind husband, father and patron to a large household, as well as a freethinker who keeps a pirated edition of Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible.

Even when he loses his wife and children to disease, he refuses to take comfort in cant: “It’s not the hand of God kills our children. It’s disease and hunger and war, rat-bites and bad air and the miasma from plague pits.” All this might be a bit much, were he not also something of a bruiser: Wolsey says he looks “like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs low men tow about on ropes”.

Mantel’s prose, like her hero, is witty and tough-minded. “That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes,” Cromwell tells Henry when the outraged king demands if he should “cower” at home rather than go to war.

The dialogue slips between English, Latin, Spanish, French, Flemish, Greek and the slang of Putney boatmen; Cromwell, as a professional middleman and polyglot, must make sense of a world awash with new words and ideas. “I am always translating,” he thinks, “if not language to language, then person to person.” (Thomas More, by contrast, “would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you”.)

The novel ends abruptly in 1535, bitten off before the events that loom over its pages: Boleyn’s execution and Cromwell’s own downfall at the hands of her uncle. “It is time to say what England is . . . It is time to say what a king is,” Cromwell resolves, in the upheaval over Henry’s remarriage.

He may not be a romantic hero, but Wolf Hall’s lawyer is, for a short while at least, the man for changing times.

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 653pp, £18.99

Show Hide image

The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis