Monday, January 31, 2011

Wolf Hall: Words and Silence

I've been reading Wolf Hall, the 2009 Man Booker Prize Winner by Hilary Mantel, since early December.  I finished it this afternoon.  I've been tempted to put up quotes now and then while I was reading it - the prose is so incredible, and so different.  Sparse.  Present tense, though set 400 years ago.

The impetus for finally getting it done - it's one of those books I didn't want to end - is that the book club meets tonight.  And it's a good thing I finished it, because only in the last line, as Thomas Cromwell is looking over the travel plans to catch up with King Henry VIII who's out of London for a bit do we even get close to Wolf Hall:
Before "Bromham," he makes a dot in the margin, and draws a long arrow across the page.  "Now, here, before we go to Winchester, we have time to spare, and what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours."

He writes it down.

Early September. Five days.  Wolf Hall. 

But I'll focus here on some exchanges between Cromwell - the commoner, the blacksmith's son, who, through his physical presence, his way with words (in any number of languages), his incredible memory and administrative skills has become Henry VIII's Chief Minister, Master of the Crown Jewels - you can see all the many positions he held at Wikipedia - and Thomas More who is a prisoner in the Tower of London awaiting trial and execution because he will not acknowledge Henry's right to split from the Church in Rome and take over as head of the Church in England.  You get a sense of Cromwell's
Tower of London last summer
with the King in this exchange where Cromwell - who in this telling of the story does not want to force Thomas More's hand and is willing to let him sit in the Tower rather than execute him - argues that
". . . No one is in doubt of his loyalty to Rome and his hatred of Your Majesty's title as head of the church.  Legally, however, our case is slender, and More will use every legal, every procedural device open to him.  This is not going to be easy."

Henry stirs into life.  "Do I retain you for what is easy?  Jesus pity my simplicity.  I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm."  He drops his voice.  "Do you think it is for your personal beauty?  The charm of your presence?  I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents.  But do not be a viper in my bosom.  You know my decision.  Execute it."
But that is background for the discussions between More and Cromwell.  And I'll do only a little part of that - that focuses on words and silence.

Cromwell is finishing a long soliloquy about the possibility of improving the world, being corrupted, the constant fight between ignorance and learning, the weather's impact on one's will (it's been raining all summer), and the need to maintain order and justice even if not perfectly. 

". . .  Last week the people were rioting in York.  Why would they not, with wheat so scarce, and twice the price of last year?  I must stir up the justices to make examples, I suppose, otherwise the whole of the north will be out with billhooks and pikes, and who will they slaughter but each other? 
(Is this what Mubarak is thinking?)
I truly believe I should be a better man if the weather were better. I should be a better man if I lived in a commonwealth where the sun shone and the citizens were rich and free.  If only that were true, Master More, you wouldn't have to pray for me nearly as hard as you do."

"How you can talk, "  More says.  Words, words, just words.  "I do, of course, pray for you.  I pray with all my heart that you will see that you are misled.  When we meet in Heaven, as I hope we will, all our differences will be forgot.  But for now, we cannot wish them away.  Your task is to kill me.  Mine is to keep alive.  It is my role and my duty.  All I own is the ground I stand on, and that ground is Thomas More.  If you want it you will have to take it from me.  You cannot reasonably believe I will yield it."
(Is this what Egyptians are thinking as the government tells them to go home and they stay out on the square?)
"You will want pen and paper to write out your defense.  I will grant you that."

"You never give up trying, do you?  No, Master Secretary, my defense is up here,"  he taps his forehead, "where it will stay safe from you."
 Cromwell looks around the empty and dark room and calls the guard to bring a candle.

Martin brings a pricket candle.  "Anything else?"  They pause while he sets it down.  When he is gone, they still pause:  the prisoner sits hunched over, looking into the flame.  How does he know if More has begun on a silence, or on a preparation for a speech? There is a silence which precedes speech, there is a silence which is instead of speech.  One need not break it with a statement, one can break it with a hesitation:  if . . . as it may be  . . . if it were possible  . . . He says, "I would have left you, you know.  To live out your life.  To repent of your butcheries.  If I were king."

Seven pages later, after More's trial and execution:

He [in this book 'he' almost always means Cromwell] says, this silence of More's, it was never really silence, was it?  It was loud with his treason;  it was quibbling as far as quibbles would serve him, it was demurs and cavils, suave ambiguities.  It was fear of plain words, or the assertion that  plain words pervert themselves;  More's dictionary, against our dictionary.  You can have a silence full of words.  A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played.  The viol, in its strings, holds a concord.  A shriveled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts.


  1. Steve, I am happy to hear that you are reading Wolf Hall. Paul gave it to me last year for my birthday and I am still reading it in little sips.Like a rare wine. I feel guilty for not just reading it but I have to read so many things not for pleasure. I like the descriptions of More. Pinched, drawn, pale and dirty. Wolf Hall, the home of the Boleyn's. Did you know know houses were called halls at this time in England because they had so few rooms. Just these great halls. We will talk about this book. K.

  2. Amazing information Thanks a lot!


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