Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

So I'm working my way through the long list for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and my latest endeavor was Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.  The story traces the rise of Thomas Cromwell through the auspices of Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII's England.  I will admit to being a bit of an anglophile...I love all things British.  As a result I had high hopes for this book, and I was not disappointed.

History lesson for today...Henry VIII of England (father to Elizabeth I) was the reigning monarch in the mid-1500s.  The story begins with Thomas in the employ of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's chief councilor.  He is a man from a low background, son of a drunken, abusive blacksmith.  He left England as a teen, traveling through France and Italy, first as a soldier, later as a wool merchant.  Coming back to England, he was taken into the employ of Cardinal Wolsey, where he learned statecraft.  After Wolsey's fall, he became one of the king's most trusted advisors, helping Henry break with the church in Rome, divorce his first queen, Katherine, and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn.  Over the time that he was working in government, he was a member of parliament, held various positions regarding the oversight of the church in England, and eventually was elevated to earl.  He also amassed a large personal fortune, allowing him to provide for his family and the many retainers that he came to have.

In every context I have ever read about Cromwell he has been portrayed as conniving, ruthless, intolerant.  Mantel's portrayal, however, is of a man who is incredibly intelligent, loyal, and practical.  Mantel's Cromwell is the very definition of an iron fist in a kid glove.  He knew exactly the right thing to say, the right gifts to give, the right threats to imply to get people way above his station to do what the king (or he) wanted.  In helping to usher Queen Katherine out and Queen Anne is, he helped set in motion the Reformation in England.

Once thing that is not entirely clear is how the title of this book came to be Wolf Hall.  You need to know a little bit more about the history of Henry VIII to understand that Wolf Hall was the home of Henry's next wife, Jane Seymour.   However, at the end of the book Henry is still married to Anne (though not happily).  Jane is mentioned often, but there is no real sense of what the future holds for her.  The text is dense...there is not one page that is not full of the machinations of kings, queens, cardinals, bishops, earls, dukes, ladies in waiting, and merchants.  I was left with a lot more knowledge about the historical figures in this mid-millenial drama, and I wanted to know what came next for Thomas and for Henry.

Well, I knew what came next for Henry-four more marriages and no legitimate male heirs.  Thomas' story ends long before the last wife, however.  After convincing the king to marry Anne of Cleves, his most failed of many failed marriages, the king turns on Cromwell, and he is executed in 1540.  Regardless of how he is perceived today, Cromwell's influence on one of the greatest changes in western culture are clear, and Mantel does a great job humanizing one of history's most interesting figures.

4 comments:

  1. I'm still on the fence with Wolf Hall, I enjoyed it but I didn't love it. I felt like Henry and Anne were secondary characters.

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  2. I guess I assumed that was deliberate...I liked reading that history from the perspective of someone different. Cromwell was a really interesting figure.

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  3. Sounds great, I really cant wait to read this.

    I also wanted to ask you something but I can't find your email. Can you please email me pageturnersbooks@gmail.com

    Thanks!

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  4. I can not wait to read this - thank you for the review! I had no idea about the title!

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