Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

81fKXcKlJMLWolf 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.



From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

91gLCxv7LiL (1)I didn’t fully appreciate the Eurocentric bias of modern history until I read From the Ruins of Empire. Despite taking history at A-level and spending hours pouring over the Treaty of Versailles and the wider Paris Peace Treaties, this was the first I’d heard of the secret agreements to parcel up the Middle East between England and France, or the way Asian countries appealed desperately to the American President Wilson and were ultimately humiliated and betrayed. Suddenly the First World War’s beginnings (something that had never really made sense to me) took on a different slant when you took in the imperialist battle over lands in Asia.

From the first few pages I knew this book would have an enormous impact on me. It opens with the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905 and the consequences of a defeat of a European power that spread across the world. It was raved about in the newspapers, babies in Indian villages were named after Japanese generals; students from the Muslim world were sent to study in Tokyo to learn the secrets of the first Asian-Euro victory in centuries…

And I thought why haven’t I heard of this before? I studied history up to A-level. I grew up in Britain and learnt about the Vikings, Normans, WW1, WW2, the Russian revolution, Victorian Britain, Henry the Eight, and yet the British Empire – the carnage it caused and its eventual defeat was never taught in any class I took. This battle in 1905 is arguably one of the most iconic events of the 20th century but Mishra mentions in his bibliography that there are surprisingly few books written on the event even now.

This book is remarkable not just because Mishra is documenting the Empire from a viewpoint we rarely hear but also because he focuses not on the key players of the era- Mao, Ghandi- but lesser known individuals to the western world. Intellectuals such as the journalist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and the reformer Liang Qichao, born a generation later,are so important, Mishra illustrates, because the messages they preached are still inspiring events that occur in the modern day Asia.

It would take too long to list all the things that shocked me in this book from the atrocities of war and invasion to the manipulation of hooking a people on opium so as to manipulate and beggar them.  I already knew the devastation that the Empire caused but even that didn’t prepare me for the utter immorality I read about in this book.

It is hard not to feel vindicated as the power balance shifts to India and China at the end of the book as we read through the ruins of civilisations so the West can have their luxuries but Mishra also illustrates the dark flaws and corruption that occurred in trying to beat Europe at their own game whether that is Japanese Imperialism, Islamic Fundamentalism or Mao’s Communist China. If you want to understand more about current events in the world around us I strongly recommend this book.