Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
2 July, 2012
I don’t know why but I’d been avoiding reading anything by Hilary Mantel for a while. It’s possibly because I had mistakenly equated her with a novelist of a similar name whom I had read almost 20 years ago and to whose book I took a dislike. And so you can understand why I want to bash my head against the wall because I have finally read Wolf Hall, almost three years since it won the Man Booker Prize, and I rue that I didn’t get to it earlier. For Wolf Hall is glorious.
We all know the story of the Tudor king, Henry VIII, husband of six wives (two divorced, two executed, one dying at childbirth, one survivor) and father of Queens ‘bloody’ Mary and Elizabeth I ‘the Virgin Queen’. And we’ve probably seen the HBO costume drama The Tudors with the dashing Suffolk. But I don’t think I’ve come across a historical novel that tackles weighty history with such vitality, immediacy and sensuality. I’m a huge fan of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries but this is a different sort of book altogether. There’s hardly any sex, except behind closed doors, not much swearing, and yet there’s so much action and thought that you feel you are right there living with Thomas Cromwell.
Because Mantel brings Thomas Cromwell alive, from the first scene where he is savagely beaten by his father Walter, to his return to London, a married man with a mission to succeed. Mantel teases out the story of Cromwell’s rise from a blacksmith’s son to become the second most powerful man in England after the King. His friendship and enmity with some of the most powerful men in the kingdom, his closeness to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, the impact of his fall, his carefully constructed relationships with the Boleyns and Norfolk. It’s all history that we know, and yet Mantel injects a freshness to the story. Because here is Cromwell, not just an acute statesman, but also a family man who loves his wife and children, looks after his wards and trains them to become self-sufficient, well-rounded adults with a living.
What I loved most was Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell as a calculating man. The way he breaks down the power structure of Tudor England by knowing exactly what everything is worth and how he uses his knowledge of accountancy and the law as a catalyst to rise up the hierarchy. There was less of the evil plotting that we are so accustomed to seeing, but more of an everyday survival strategy at work here. Mantel certainly knows how to make such a public and powerful figure appear ordinary, like someone you or I could know.
This is the first book in Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. We meet Cromwell as a young boy about to run away from an abusive father. Then he returns, grown into a man with experience in fighting, soldiering, business and finance. And we see how he turns the misfortunes of his master, Thomas Wolsey, into something he can work with. How he turns the mistrust of Anne Boleyn as he formulates a strategy to make her Queen and to release Henry VIII from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and Papal rule.
Wolf Hall is a big book in every way. It’s size, it’s content, the robust nature of the story and prose and yet it is a thrilling read. I loved it all. And what a clever move to call the novel Wolf Hall, the seat of the Seymour family, a place that is yet to be visited in the novel.