Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wolf Hall

Without a doubt, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel deserves every accolade that it has received. It is an amazing book--interesting, innovative, satisfying, thought-provoking.

Let's start with interesting. The Tudors--HVIII and Anne Boleyn in particular--have captured the imagination for centuries, and with the current TV series The Tudors, this book couldn't have hit the market at a better time as Tudormania seems to build with each season. That said, before I started the book I wondered if Mantel could really say anything new about HVIII and AB. Turns out she could. Telling the story of HVIII and his quest for a son from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell is little short of brilliant. In most tellings of the story, he is painted as the Machiavellian master--cold, calculating, ruthless. Your classic 'yes' man. In Wolf Hall, he is all this but more as well. Hall didn't sugarcoast him ("In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was."), but seeing him at home with his wife and children, watching him raise his son, mentor the young men in his household, and reminisce about his childhood and siblings humanized him. He is a hard man, a ruthless man, even a "yes" man, but now I have an understanding of his heart and can say that despite the record, he was a good man.

Looking at the story of HVIII and AB from Cromwell's persepective was refreshing--his take on the king and his queens and their families, friends, supporters, and enemies was fascinating and fresh. I loved the slang he used for the Boleyn/Howard clan (e.g., "Uncle Norfolk"); I enjoyed the interactions he had with Mary Boleyn and Jane Seymour, which added spice and depth to the story; I enjoyed his back story. I also really liked the interaction with Hans Holbein, the painter who did this portrait of Cromwell as well as painted portraits of so many of the other significant players in the story.

It struck that Thomas Cromwell is really an epitome of the American hero--completely self-made, pulling himself up from humble origins by sheer grit, intelligence, and the ability to take advantage of opportunities. What's more, he doesn't distance himself from his origins, nor pretend he is anything other than he is. This pride in himself aggravates the peers of the realm who squirm under the power he holds over them, and they cannot understand why he doesn't invent a more prestigious past for himself. I was particularly amused by HVIII trying to convince Cromwell that he was really descended from a noble family when in fact Cromwell kept on denying the connection. This was one of the aspects of Cromwell that I really admired--he didn't pretend to be noble even when titles were thrust upon him. He was the son of a blacksmith who beat him whenever he had the chance. This one trait convinced me that he had personal integrity despite how savage his actions might appear.

Moving on to innovative, I'll agree with the gripe that many have expressed about the book being hard to read. It does take some getting used to--it's written in 3rd person present tense with the point-of-view being entirely Cromwell's. It would have been far easier to read had Mantel merely opted for first person, but once you get used to the pronoun "he" almost always referring to Cromwell even if she has invoked his name for pages, the narration works well to get the reader inside the head but without making the story read like a confessional, which it most assuredly is not. It does have stream-of-consciousness feel, but this provides a level of intimacy that I think is essential to making Cromwell sympathetic in the end.

While Wolf Hall doesn't tell the whole story and I've heard that Mantel is working on a sequel, the novel was satisfying, ending with the king headed toward Wolf Hall and the arms of Jane Seymour.

All great books linger in the consciousness for a good long while after you read the last words. Wolf Hall has certainly hung around with me this past week, and it's prompted me to pick up a few Tudor non-fictions I have to refresh my memory on the historical record of both Thomas Cromwell and his counterpoint, Thomas More.

Wolf Hall was a magnificent read--worth the trouble of getting comfortable with and definitely on the reread pile when the sequel eventually comes out.


  1. I'm about half way through and I think I'm missing some of the nuances by not reading it quickly. I put it down, come back, wonder what happened before. Bits of it grip and bits of it confuse me. I love the style but agree it's slightly baffling at times. I think I am going to re-read it and just push through it in as few sittings as possible to really come to grips with what is essentially an amazing piece of writing.

  2. I was going to read this anyway and now I'm really looking forward to it - thanks for the review Jane.