Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

>> Wednesday, October 03, 2012

TITLE: Wolf Hall
AUTHOR: Hilary Mantel

PAGES: 674
PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: 16th century England
TYPE: Historical fiction
SERIES: Start of a trilogy

England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
Wolf Hall covers very familiar territory: Henry VIII's determination to have a male heir, which leads him to break with the Catholic church in order to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. What we get here, and one of the things which makes this such a magnificent book, is these events being told from a wholly original and fascinating point of view.

We see the action through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell enters the scene as the right-hand man of Cardinal Wolsey, a man clearly on his way down, due to his failure to get the king what he wants in the matter of his marriage. Rather than going down with his master, however, Cromwell manages to manoeuver his way into the circles of power, and ends up one of the most powerful men in court.

What I loved about Wolf Hall is that this is really Cromwell's book, the story of his ascent to power. Henry and his wives and all the court intrigue are wonderfully done, but they are the background to the story of a man, a character study, really. Whether the Cromwell that emerges is an accurate portrayal of the man is besides the point. He's an amazing character, period.

Mantel makes Cromwell a man of his time, ruthless as anything, a brilliant manipulator and a man who has an innate grasp of politics. At one point Thomas More says "Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.' Just so.

At the same time, however, Mantel manages to make us empathise with him. In this book, she makes us even sympathise with him, because for all the manoeuvering, he comes across as a bone-deep decent character, from his dealings with the women in his life(which Mantel contrasts with the very vilified More), to the fact that he manages to inveigle his way into his master's role as the King's man without ever betraying his master (and in fact, while working very hard on his behalf). He's enlightened, and he has a sense of humour.

It doesn't feel like a whitewash, however, because the feeling I got was of Mantel setting up her entire trilogy, not just the one book. I got the feeling that she wasn't telling us that this is a wonderful, heroic and perfect man, but that, so far, Cromwell has been able to do his work and give the king what he wants, if not while not doing things that bother him, while not doing things that violate his ethics. Thomas More's execution is the perfect example. Cromwell would rather have not had him executed, but he can rest easy that he did all he could to prevent it, and it was More himself, with his obstinacy, that ensured his end. In the next book, though, with Anne Boleyn's execution, he won't have it so easy. He'll have to make the really hard choices, and it's knowing a bit of the history that's coming that makes Wolf Hall so subtle and multilayered.

This is also one of those books where storytelling, characterisation and perfect writing come together. It's a doorstopper, which is why it took me so long to pick it up, but once I started it, it didn't feel a chore to read. Every time I opened it I sank into it and wallowed in the beautiful prose, beautiful in a spare and perfect way.

MY GRADE: A solid A.


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