Monday, January 11, 2010

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Now this was a good book.

I know I bitch a lot about the books I read, and even I wonder sometimes if there are ever any books that I do like. I liked this one. I liked this one a lot, and I'd recommend it to anyone with any taste at all for historical fiction.

The hero is Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who improbably rose to be Henry VIII's closest counselor. He was the epitome of the "new man," the non-noble who rose to prominence by his skill and talent--something that hadn't happened before Henry VIII.

A quick look at the Wikipedia entry on Thomas Cromwell gives the substance of his life and does nothing to diminish the joy of this novel. Mantel has taken the bones of Cromwell's life and fashioned a character, one who moves through history in relation to other characters. Mantel sets up Cromwell against Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and shows off each individual character. Whether or not they are actually accurate, they are engaging.

The book starts with what may have been the lowest point in Thomas Cromwell's life: at approximately age 14 he was beaten within an inch of his life by his father. The book literally starts with Cromwell's thoughts that he might not survive. The book ends at a high point in his career, where he has achieved a great deal in royal government and seems to be contemplating the possibility of marrying again. Along the way we are treated to seeing turbulent Tudor life through the eyes of a man we can respect for his wisdom and his kindness.

It is through the accumulation of almost domestic details that Mantel tells this story, leaving the reader with a sense of having truly seen into the past. Cardinal Wolsey is not terribly pious, and is always at the king's side, despite being the Archbishop of York. He is a tireless worker, fond of luxuries, surprisingly kind and witty. When he is presented with a sun dial he remarks "Nine faces! That's two more than the Duke of Norfolk!" Which is a rather witty way to vent his frustration over his opponent.

Wolsey amused himself by inventing stories of Cromwell's origins. At one point in the book, after Wolsey's death, someone demands to know if Cromwell had been baptized, since the cardinal had said that Cromwell had been kidnapped by pirate while an infant. Cromwell's response captured the spirit of his former master: "Who will I have to invent me now?"

T here is a touching scene between Cromwell and King Henry. Wolsey has been stripped of his position as Lord Chancellor and has been turned out of his London house, after failing to get a divorce for Henry. Cromwell has come to beg for some leniency or assistance, to get Wolsey up to York. In front of his counsel and Anne Boleyn, Henry remains firm, but he demands a private consultation with Cromwell and asks "Would a thousand pounds help?"

I adored these human touches to people who are often just names in history books. Thomas More is portrayed as a self-righteous prig. Mark Smeaton, the musician who would ultimately be swept up in Anne Boleyn's fall, is a vain gossip. Henry Norris is a thoughtless and casually cruel man. Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, compete with each other to hire Cromwell after Wolsey's death, but do not appreciate his appointment to the king's council. Anne Boleyn is wary, tense, and fiercely intelligent; her sister Mary is kind hearted and genuinely likable. Jane Seymour is a ghostly presence, yet attractive, somehow remaining loyal to Queen Katherine yet welcomed in Anne Boleyn's rooms.

The book ends before Anne Boleyn's fall, but the signs are there: the first baby only a girl, a miscarriage, and the stress of the relationship between her and the king. The dominoes are lined up to be pushed over. Yet, again, Thomas Cromwell will survive this fall, as he survived Wolsey's only to lose his position and his head over the debacle of the marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1640.

But the book ends before any of this happens. Could Mantel be planning a sequel?

And why the heck is it called "Wolf Hall?" Wolf Hall was the seat of the Seymour family, where (eventually) Henry VIII would go to court his third wife, Jane Seymour. The first we hear of Wolf Hallin the novel is as the site of a scandal. Wolf Hall's lord, Sir John Seymour, was discovered carrying on an affair with his oldest son's wife. Later, Jane Seymour makes a remark about staying at court until things settle down at home. At the end of the book, Cromwell is contemplating a call at Wolf Hall, presumably to court Jane Seymour. Other than these references, nothing happens at Wolf Hall--all the main action happens at Cromwell's home or the royal palaces.

Even writing this review, I find myself wondering what I missed the first time through. This book gets an A from me.


Michele at Reader's Respite said...

This was one of the very best books I read last year.....wasn't sure I'd like it based on some of the reviews I read, but I absolutely positively adored this book. So glad to read another review from someone who "gets" it!

Minnie said...

Great review, Cate. I loved it, too, and enjoyed revisiting it via your post. I heard there was to be a sequel, hence everything left hanging in the air (and, possibly, the title which is the name of the Seymour manor in Wiltshire*).
* Only the site remains, sadly.

Micaella Lopez said...

Eloquent and detailed. A great historical review of a fascinating time in English history.

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