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Wolf Hall: Another Spin on the Other Boleyn?

In this essay, Frances E. Dolan compares Hillary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, to Philippa Gregory’s popular The Other Boleyn Girl. Dolan is the author of Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy.

Wolf Hall: Another Spin on the Other Boleyn?

Hillary Mantel, whose novel Wolf Hall recently won a Man Booker Prize, might seem to be in a rather different league than Philippa Gregory, author of numerous best-selling novels about Tudor queens. Focusing on Henry VIII’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell, Mantel gives us a Tudor court of cool calculation rather than ripping bodices and throbbing passions. By leaving sex out of it, for the most part, and putting men rather than women at the heart of her story, Mantel raises the prestige of the historical novel set in Tudor England and has collected kudos as a consequence. Stopping short of the events many would consider climactic—Anne Boleyn’s fall and execution, Cromwell’s own execution–Mantel frees us to remember that these developments weren’t inevitable and offers us a new slant on a story that, she assumes, we already know. Her novel ends with Cromwell planning for Henry’s entourage to visit Wolf Hall, the Seymour family home. Unless the reader knows that Henry’s interest in Jane Seymour is supposed to have intensified during this visit, establishing Jane as the successor to Anne, neither this ending nor the book’s title makes much sense. While Henry’s wives and mistresses remain key pawns in this account, the players are men such as Cromwell.

The most vividly depicted female character in Wolf Hall is Anne’s sister, Mary. Since Mary is also the protagonist of Gregory’s blockbuster The Other Boleyn Girl, and the film of the same name, I thought it would be useful to consider whether Mantel offers us a new perspective on her.

Mary Boleyn was Henry VIII’s mistress in the second or third decade of the sixteenth century, before he became involved with Anne. Many popular accounts, including The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall, assume that of Mary’s two children born while she was married to William Carey, at least one, the boy Henry, was Henry VIII’s. If so, Henry never acknowledged him, as he did his son by Elizabeth Blount, also named Henry. To explain why he did not, both Gregory and Mantel blame Anne and the Boleyn family for strategizing to increase the pressure on Henry to secure a legitimate heir by marrying Anne. In 1534, during Anne’s brief marriage to Henry, Mary made a secret match to William Stafford, a low status “hanger on” at the court. When her family discovered the marriage because of Mary’s pregnancy, they banished her from court and cut off her allowance. Pleading with Cromwell to restore her allowance, Mary wrote a letter that has become central to the popular notion that she married for love. “For well I might a’ had a greater man of birth and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a’ had one that should a loved me so well nor a more honest man. . . . But were I at my liberty and might choose . . . I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest Queen christened.” Versions of this letter appear in both The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall. In many ways Gregory and Mantel craft their accounts of Mary to build toward this letter and explain its combination of self-justification, bravado, and supplication.

Whatever the sisters might actually have thought of one another, they serve as almost fairytale contrasts in most accounts of the Boleyns at court: Mary fair and Anne dark; Mary sexually generous and Anne slyly withholding; Mary inconveniently fertile and Anne struggling to deliver the male heir on which her life depends. While both women were maneuvered into place by their powerful relatives, Anne is usually presented as a schemer in her own right. For example, Mantel’s Anne Boleyn is “her own best tactician” (281); “Anne is not a carnal being, she is a calculating being, with a cool slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes” (287). With her more extensive sexual experience, Mary is presented as the tutor who enables Anne to be both technically virginal and sexually knowing. Anne marries out of ambition; Mary, in her second, clandestine marriage, chooses for love and escapes the court, the ultimate wolf hall. Many biographers of Henry’s wives refer to Mary as, thereby, achieving a “happier ending” than did her sister—not that it would be hard to do so.

In The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory has Mary sharply critique women’s subordination, especially in marriage, and their impossible position at court: “If only women could have more . . . If we could have more in our own right. Being a woman at court is like forever watching a pastrycook at work in the kitchen. All those good things, and you can have nothing” (306). But this critique does not yield sympathy for Anne’s ambition or for her strategies for gaining access to “all those good things” by marrying up. Anne is the sister who demands more, insisting on a place at the head of the banquet table. But in reaching so high, the novel suggests, she winds up with nothing. In contrast, Mary secures her happiness by escaping the court and marrying beneath her: “In a world where women were bought and sold as horses I had found a man I loved; and married for love” (518). Moving from a disillusioned critique of marriage and women’s status to her assertion that marrying for love—that is, making her own choice–has released her from her status as property, Gregory’s Mary allows readers to have it both ways: critiquing marriage, at least as Tudor women experienced it, and celebrating marriage, somewhat anachronistically, as a way to achieve autonomy, fulfillment, and companionship.
In Wolf Hall, Mary is again the character who exposes both the difficulties of women’s position at court and Anne’s ruthlessness. We meet Mary after her first husband William Carey has died. She is presented as a sly commentator on Anne Boleyn’s operations and as a kind of suitor to Thomas Cromwell, whom she both “alarms” and interests. Whereas Gregory’s Mary Boleyn greets being widowed as a form of freedom—“his death had set me free” –Mantel’s Mary misses her dead husband because her widowed status makes her marginal rather than free. “Now she is everything, and I am to be swept out after supper like the old rushes. Now I’m no one’s wife, they can say anything they like to me” (112). In her first conversation with Cromwell, she confesses that she needs money to care for her children and that “I need a new husband. To stop them calling me names” (113). The husband she’d like would be “One who will take care of my children. One who can stand up to my family. One who doesn’t die” (113). Cromwell suggests she ask for “young and handsome too” (113). In the course of their conversation, she concludes that she no longer wants to be a Boleyn; she’d rather be a beggar; and she’d most like “a husband who upsets them. I want to marry a man who frightens them” (114). Mantel suggests that Thomas Cromwell, recently widowed, appeals to Mary as a good prospect in this regard.

Once Anne is pregnant (with the future Queen Elizabeth) she tells Cromwell that she is “tired of Mary” and wants “to be rid of her.” “She should be married and out of my way. I never want to have to see her. I don’t want to have to think about her. I have long imagined her married to some obscure person” (352). Anne suggests Cromwell might marry Mary off to his nephew, a distant Tudor relation; and Cromwell considers the possibility. But Henry nixes this plan because “he needs Mary for himself” while Anne is pregnant. The Boleyn family colludes with him on this because, as Mary explains, “God forbid the king should ride a mare from any other stable” (384); but Mantel suggests that Anne wants to be rid of Mary because she is jealous. Mantel depicts Mary as without choice or option, on call against her will as a sexual surrogate for her sister. When Cromwell encounters her, fatigued and dispirited, he suggests that she’ll surely get a “pension” or “settlement” for her service. “Does a dirty dishcloth get a pension?,” she asks (384). Mantel’s version of the story helps to explain why Mary would write to Cromwell for money. Cromwell vows that “He will humiliate him [Henry]—in his genial fashion—and make him give Mary an annuity. The girl worked for him, on her back, and now he must pension her” (495). This telling of Mary’s story is even more lurid than the plot of The Other Boleyn Girl, even though there are no sex scenes. Yet Mantel’s Mary still romanticizes her love match as her only act of personal agency.

In Wolf Hall as in The Other Boleyn Girl Mary is the only uncalculating Boleyn, the only artless person at the Tudor court. Mary says Anne could never understand why she would have sex with or marry a William Stafford. “What would Anne know of taking a man for himself? You can tell her he loves me. You can tell her he cares for me and no one else does. No one else in the world” (488). In her longest speech, Mary turns on Lady Rochford (her brother George’s wife and a central character in Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance [2006]):
You are a wretched unhappy woman whose husband loathes her, and I pity you, and I pity my sister Anne, I would not change places with her, I had rather be in the bed of an honest poor gentleman who cares only for me than be like the queen and only able to keep her man with old whore’s trick’s—yes, I know it is so . . . and it doesn’t conduce to getting a child, I can tell you. And now she is afraid of every woman at court—have you looked at her, have you looked at her lately? Seven years she schemed to be queen, and God protect us from answered prayers. (489)

Although Mantel’s prose has been justly praised, this indignant speech could have been lifted right out of The Other Boleyn Girl or many another Tudor bodice-ripper that would not have made the Booker Prize shortlist. It’s as if, when we get to the Boleyn women, and particularly to catfights among them, we’re always on the same terrain. It’s hard to elevate or rethink them. Of course, history sets the limits of an historical novel. Mary got married and left the court; Anne got the axe. The best historical fiction, however, embellishes, invents, and excludes so that we see the past, and our relation to it, in a new way. Mantel’s novel may change how we look at Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. But her depiction of Mary Boleyn is the same old story.


Mary Stafford to Thomas Cromwell (1534), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. J. S. Brewer, R. H. Brodie, and James Gairdner, 21 vols. (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1862-1910), 7: 1655.