Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, Copyright 2009. Fourth Estate 2010
I’ve come to this book very late! Despite being a connoisseur of Tudor novels it has taken me a long time to read Wolf Hall. By winning the Man Booker prize and being set in a period I am fascinated with I was almost afraid to read it.
Thomas Cromwell is a rather unlikely hero, being both hated in his time and coming off rather unsympathetically in the various fictional adaptations he has connived through. As lawyer and chief minister to Henry VIII he is best known as aiding the rise and downfall of Anne Boleyn and the reformation of the English church. In Wolf Hall we see Thomas Cromwell, a boy from a violent home in Putney, rising up to take a starring role in court through a formidable intelligence and a face “like a murderer.”
The first 100 pages were intriguing but slow work for me. I found Mantel’s excessive use of “He” hard to get used to. The last 500 had me with my face glued to the pages. Despite seeing these particular events in about five Philippa Gregory books, a tv show (The Tudors), a play at The Globe (Anne Boleyn), primary school history and a history book by Antonia Frasier, it all felt new and exciting to me. The moment it was revealed why the novel is called Wolf Hall sent chills down my spine.
I love the detail; how Cromwell thinks like a lawyer (when he hears gossip he thinks Witnesses? Dates?), like a silk merchant, like a street brawler. The way that the Cardinal and Norfolk and the King look at him from tolerant bemusement to horror and disgust like – How did this boy from Putney manage to raise himself to our level? Where did he come from? what is he?
Cardinal Wolsey especially is stamped across this book and I particularly like the relationship between he and Cromwell. The playful way he asks Cromwell to price everything he wears.
He is about to say, the cardinal taught me everything, but Chapuys talks over him. “When the cardinal came to a closed door he would flatter it- oh beautiful yielding door! Then he would try tricking it open. And you are just the same, just the same.” He pours himself some of the duke’s present. “But in the last resort you just kick it in.”
Mantel made me care about Cromwell’s houshold- the sisters, wives, nephews. The usual stars of history, those at court, circle around in a wider sphere. By putting “the king” at a distance and placing emphasis more on his subordinates Mantel makes the past seem more immediate and relatable. Above all she made me love Cromwell himself. He is a fascinating character, not only intelligent and ruthless but also full of compassion. I can’t wait to see what he will do in Bring Up the Bodies, despite knowing how it will all end I badly want to see the journey Mantel will take us to get there.