Wolf Hall: A Review

As I have returned from my six weeks of traveling, I have taken a few days to sit and do little else but read. In this time, I have completed Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (Holt, 2009). I know I’m a little late to the game on this one, but I decided to start reading it because of the interest garnered by her recent publication of Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall. As a warning, the book I am about to discuss is highly decorated, winning both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2009. No English teacher worth her salt would say this is a “bad” book.

Wolf Hall is the story of Henry VIII‘s fight to father an heir by any means necessary, told through the lens of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is an interesting figure in this time period because he is a common man who rises quickly through the ranks of nobility, while never actually gaining a title himself, and gains the trust of King Henry. This is a story that has been told time and again recently with the popularity of shows like The Tudors and the books and eventual movies of Phillipa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl, etc.). Henry is aging and dissatisfied with his wife Katherine because she has not given him a male heir. He finds his youth somewhat restored in the presence of the Boleyn sisters, but must nullify his marriage of 20 years in order to secure his line. The Howard family (of which Ann Boleyn and her sister Mary are a part) try to control the Church, the Parliament, and the King in order to place Ann on the throne.

This was the story that I knew, the story that I was looking forward to with all of its intrigue and sexy double-dealing. I was expecting The Tudors. What I got was much more Shakespeare meets West Wing, at least at first.

Mantel paints an interesting figure in Cromwell in that she delves deep into his young life an imagines what would make this common man so tough that he could climb the ranks as he does. She almost lost me at the beginning of the book because of its slow descent into the religious and political atmosphere of England in the early 1500’s. Cromwell working for Cardinal Wosley, every third man named Thomas, moving from one house to another and trying to keep the dates straight. I was reading this on the Kindle app on my phone and I just longed for a paper book to be able to flip to the family charts at the beginning without losing my place.

But then, like learning a new language, I assimilated into the culture of Wolf Hall.

Cromwell’s character is inviting even when he is becoming the king’s man and not a person he may once have known. But even when he is forced to be cruel, Mantel makes us feel like he is acting out that Nick Lowe song “Cruel to be Kind.” His friends would lay down their lives for him, and his enemies are really his friends. Chapuys, the Emperor’s ambassador, should hate Cromwell for his religion, his political beliefs, his ability to take the Emperor’s aunt (Katherine) out of the throne, and yet the two share wine. Children love him, and women throw themselves at him, to no avail. He plays matchmaker for the Tudors and Boleyns, but won’t take that kind of time for himself. The reasoning behind this is perhaps where Mantel does some of her most beautiful writing. Cromwell’s drifts into his past are at times confusing, but Mantel’s control does not slip.

A beautiful book. I suggest that you spend time getting into the book and getting out of it. It would be a good book if one had hours to sit on the couch, the beach, perhaps in the Tower?

(Side note: The picture of Mary and baby Jesus above is the oldest Virgin Mary in the Americas. I took that picture in Lima, Peru. beautiful, isn’t she? I will eventually get around to writing about South America. Or maybe not.)

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