Friday, October 14, 2011
But now Hilary Mantel has given us Wolf Hall, which tells the story again from an entirely new and fresh angle, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor throughout the English Reformation, the man who oversaw Henry’s divorce from Katherine and facilitated Anne’s ascension to the throne. “Facilitated” is the operative word here, for, as Mantel depicts him, Cromwell is a master at the game of thrones: a skilled negotiator, a lawyer, a financier, and most interesting of all, a virtuoso at empathy, at figuring out exactly how to convince each player to go along with Henry’s plans. He is also, surprise surprise, extremely funny, with a dry wit that carries him through all kinds of challenges.
Cromwell was never a central character in the books I read as a girl. Along with Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey he was one of the boring old men who filled in the background. But Mantel has turned Cromwell into a fascinating character and dare I say it? I now have a crush on him. Mantel’s Cromwell is a warm, sensitive man who for years mourns the death of his wife and daughters, who fosters several young nephews with wisdom and affection, who works the system (such as it is) to arrive at the fairest settlement he can for Katherine and her daughter Mary, and who never forgets (or tries to hide) his humble origins as the son of a blacksmith.
Mantel writes the whole book as if we are observing from a camera mounted on Cromwell’s head. The narrative hews so closely to his perspective that she simply refers to Cromwell as “he” throughout the novel, sometimes causing confusion, until you understand what she’s doing. It’s very effective in making the reader identify so closely with Cromwell’s point of view. Know also that this book is very very long and slow going. It took me months to finish it, though I confess to occasionally cheating on Master Cromwell with various other (less demanding) books.
(Book 30, 2011)