By Hilary Mantel
- Date finished: June 11, 2014
- Genre: Fiction
- Year: 2009
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Summer 2014, Booker Award Winners
- Grade: A+
- Thoughts upon reading:
So can I just say: I really, really liked Wolf Hall. I was expecting to enjoy it – it doesn’t win the Booker Prize for nothing – but I don’t think I knew just how much awesome I was getting myself into.
First of all, I’d like to point out that I don’t consider myself an Angophile (if anything, I’m a lover of all things French). I’m not obsessed with the history of English kings and queens, even though I find it interesting. However, Wolf Hall might have changed a little bit of that, as Hilary Mantel tells a very familiar tale of sex, deceit, be-headings, political manipulations and the monarchy – the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, through the eyes of King Henry’s influential adviser, Thomas Cromwell.
This is familiar territory, and even if I’m not an Anglophile or English, I at least know a little about Cromwell. He’s a contentious figure in history – he’s ruthless and daring, a political genius in a lot of ways, and orchestrates a pivotal time in English history. After reading Mantel’s account of Cromwell’s rise in Wolf Hall, I love Thomas Cromwell.
Now, I’m not sure how much of what Mantel relates is 100 percent accurate, and I’m sure she takes plenty of artistic liberties. But I really do love Mantel’s Cromwell, as this book is supposed to convince you to do. Cromwell, in Wolf Hall, comes from nothing; he’s the son of an alcoholic and abusive blacksmith who runs away, joins the army and fights in a few foreign wars. When he returns to England, he realizes he has a knack for business, the law, and persuading men to do what he wants. He rises to the position of adviser and confidant of the English cardinal, Thomas Wolsey, and almost disappears after the cardinal falls out of favor with the king, who wants to divorce his wife and marry a pretty girl named Anne.
But Cromwell endures, fights back, and to the irritation of everyone at court, ingratiates himself with King Henry and Anne Boleyn. What unfolds is the story we’re all very familiar with, but from the eyes of a tireless servant who will do whatever it takes to make his king happy. After all, a happy king means a happy kingdom, and that’s just good business.
Because of the bloodshed connected with this time, people like to think of Cromwell as a bloodthirsty and amoral man, yet Mantel’s Cromwell is anything but. He’s smart and cunning, and able to effortlessly direct people and events as if they were pieces on a chessboard. But he’s also a sensitive man who loves his family and welcomes dozens of people to his household, raising father-less boys as if they were own sons, and taking in child servants who were beaten by their previous masters. His heart isn’t necessarily cold, but guarded and rational. He’s funny and witty, and despite his rough history, friendly even with his enemies. In short, he’s a genius.
I thought Cromwell’s relationship with religion was particularly interesting. Despite his time working for one of England’s top religious figures, and amid the religious battles that ensue as Henry breaks from Rome and becomes the head of the Church of England, Cromwell keeps his head and his tongue silent on the subject. In reality, Cromwell is secretly protecting those who are trying to translate, and disseminate, the Bible into English, even though it’s against the laws of Rome and England. He encourages his children and wards to read and think for themselves. Cromwell is not perfect, and is the first to admit that he carries his sins with him. But he first and foremost accepts that he is who he is, and is not ashamed. It’s a surprisingly modern stance on religion and morality, and one that I found refreshing and even worthy for emulation today.
I won’t say this book is entirely perfect; it can take a little while to get used to the way Mantel writes, as well as her oftentimes frustrating way of mixing dialogue with someone’s thoughts – oftentimes I had to stop and ask myself: “Now who’s talking again? Did they really say that, or just think it?” Since we’re in Cromwell’s head, he often changes how he addresses and thinks about people, sometime calling someone “Bishop Winchester”, the next moment, referring to him as “Stephen”. It requires one to pay attention, and even then, there were moments where Cromwell’s mind wandered and to be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about. But it doesn’t detract from the story, and Mantel’s writing really is brilliant. I’m ready to move on to Bring Up the Bodies, and might even pay attention should HBO actually bring what will eventually be this trilogy to the small screen. A closet Anglophile? Maybe. Just maybe.