Friday, October 14, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

As a girl I was obsessed with books about Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth I (and indeed about all the queens and princesses of England). My favorites were by authors like Margaret Campbell Barnes (whose 1944 classic Brief Gaudy Hour is still in print) and Jean Plaidy, whose Tudor Saga and Stuart Saga kept me occupied for one entire summer when I was about 12. More recent entries to the canon include books by Alison Weir and Phillipa Gregory. I am not sure why, but I haven’t liked these as much. Maybe I just got tired of them all after a while.

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)

7 comments:

Sarah Laurence said...

I was put off by the opening scene, but I knew my husband (a descendent of Henry VIII's court jester) would love it, and he did. He couldn't put it down.

reviewsbylola said...

I thought I would love this one but I finally gave up around page 150. I just couldn't get into it.

Sita said...

2nd recommendation, will read it now! As Mawrter, longer book the better!

Lisa S. said...

Why were we all so fascinated by QE1 back in the 70s? Was it feminism in search of heroines? Or was it a result of movies like Anne of a Thousand Days (that sparked some of it for me)? So odd that interest in historical figures and periods goes in fashion cycles. I too hated the Phillipa Gregory books. Too much sex. Not enough intrigue.

Ruthiella said...

I too found Master Cromwell kinda sexy while reading Wolf Hall. But check out his portrait on Wikipedia, yikes! I was really happy to find out that Hillary Mantel has quite a back catalog and I have since purchased "A Greater Safety" to read sometime next year.

Buchgestaltung said...

Another informative blog… Thank you for sharing it… Best of luck for further endeavor too.

France said...

Hilary Mantel has deserved to win the Booker with this magnificent novel. For someone interested in the history of Henry VIII and the ill fated Anne Boleyn, this is an absolute treat - a meticulously researched and written novel which portrays their era with colour and wit. But of course the true star of the book is Thomas Cromwell, son of a violent blacksmith, and his meteoric rise to fame.
The magic in this novel is that it is quintisentially English, and extraordinarily effective in painting the landscape. Anyone who knows England, even that modern country that exists today will recognise the characters and geography. You can taste the food that is offered, smell the odours from the river and visualise the grey velvet that Cromwell wears. It shows him as a human character, who had loved and lost not only his benefactor, but friends and family as well. As someone who knew Cromwell from his stern Hans Holbein portait and other historical books, this portrayal has been a revelation - I have suddenly seen him as he was - a husband, father and son, as well as a brilliant and ambitious man who lived in extraordinary times.

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