Set in the period from 1500 to 1535, Wolf Hall is a highly fictionalized novel documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII through to the death of Sir Thomas More, and this is the first of three novels in a trilogy. This book and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies both won the Man Booker Prize when they were published. A hugely impressive achievement!
In spite of its double bonanza with the Bookers, I have been fairly reluctant to pick them up.
Possibly, because it seems impossible that the story of Henry VIII’s marriages could have any novelty value. Let’s face it, the story has been done to death today by Philippa Gregory, Jean Plaidy, and the like.
What could Mantel possibly add to the conversation?
Turns out, quite a lot, actually.
This book is from the perspective of one of the most loathed people in England’s history – Thomas Cromwell. A low-born, wily man who became the King’s trusted adviser and who was responsible for a lot of the terrible events that happened during that period – the break of England from the church, the divorce of Queen Katherine, the rise and fall of Queen Anne Boleyn, and other such events. Definitely a bloody history.
The book starts off in that vein in Putney, in 1500. Thomas Cromwell is a fifteen-year-old boy. His vicious, drunken father Walter is in the act of kicking him unconscious:
Blood from the gash on his head—which was his father’s first effort—is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.
I definitely didn’t expect a historical novel starting off so abruptly, and with such a modern tone. Immediately, I began to wonder, just how historically accurate was this book? Have liberties been taken? Where?
I couldn’t find anything definitive online. It seems that Cromwell’s early life is not very well-documented, but I did find an interview that Mantel gave (complete interview here), and I was impressed by just how seriously she takes her research, and convinced me that I could trust Mantel and her judgement.
I can’t see the point of doing it otherwise. Of course nobody can guarantee 100 per cent accuracy – you are never going to be completely free of mistakes. But I think you have to take your research seriously, otherwise there is no point in it at all. You can’t speculate emptily about the personal reality of people’s lives. It has to be grounded in time, place and context. If you don’t like research and don’t consider it important then it’s better, in my view, to leave the historical novel alone.
My worries about accuracy stopped right there. Yes, there isn’t the usual thee and thou in the dialogues, and it is not all dramatic and over the top, but in spite of all the modern touches, the book reads very true to the times.
But then there is the question of the unlikable protagonist.
How to make an unlikable character the center of the story? How to make him the hero?
Mantel solves that problem by pitting him against even more unlikable people. Here Thomas More is one of the villains, the man who burns heretics at the stake and does not lose sleep over it.
More says it does not matter if you lie to heretics, or trick them into a confession. They have no right to silence, even if they know speech will incriminate them; if they will not speak, then break their fingers, burn them with irons, hang them up by their wrists. It is legitimate, and indeed More goes further; it is blessed.
I didn’t really know much about More except for the fact that he objected to the separation of the church from Rome and later lost his head for it. I used to admire him thinking that he was brave enough to die for his convictions. But reading this book about his tortures of the heretics made me question my existing view of how things went down.
I also loved this glimpse that Mantel provides of court events through the eyes of how a commoner might view them. Cromwell, born in poverty, a man who lived an adventurous life in many foreign places brings a whole new perspective on an age-old story.
Also, it is good to get an insight into what motivates his actions – the new religion, a longing for equality, loyalty to his mentor Wosley, what seems like a genuine desire to empower England and pull the country into modernity.
It seems almost a pity that he has to work with Henry VIII, whose sole aim in life seems to be fathering a male child. I was hoping that this book would throw a different light on Henry also, but that is asking a bit too much. It helps I think, that so little is known about Cromwell’s private thoughts and early life, it allows Mantel some freedom to develop Cromwell’s character.
It also allows her to depict other people through his eyes, so we get insights into Anne Boleyn (doesn’t come off as negative as I expected), the courtiers surrounding her, as well as his colleagues. These insights are very interesting because:
- This is probably the first Henry VIII book that I have read that is written from a common man’s point of view. So people like Norfolk, Suffolk, Cranmer etc. are all depicted quite differently – more as colleagues that Cromwell works with, who have their own personal problems, and who have to navigate the King’s moods just like his wife has to do.
- Cromwell judges people from different standards than most nobility. He values them more for what they do, rather than their rank in life.
- This is probably the first book about Anne Boleyn that I read that seems true to her character. She is not the center of the story, but she appears very realistic like how she would appear to someone who is not a courtier, and who is not swayed by her charm.
That said, Cromwell did creep me out quite a bit towards the end, with his ambiguous attitude towards Mary Boleyn and Jane Seymour. He seems strongly attracted to both girls. Especially Jane Seymour – his tone veers between fatherly, and elderly lecher, and all those interactions between the two totally creeped me out. It also rang a little false as it seemed a bit unrealistic that Jane (who was supposedly such a goody-goody) actually spoke so openly to him.
But that’s the only false note in the book, and that may not be Mantel’s fault. It’s probably just my preconception of Jane from reading so many books where she is portrayed as a silent little mouse.
The book ends with Anne’s coronation, the birth of Elizabeth, and then her later miscarriages. I am now looking forward to Bring up the Bodies, which will talk about Anne’s fall from grace, and the rise of Jane Seymour.
Just can’t wait.
I can’t end this review without saying that I loved this book enormously, however, it is not an easy read. And especially if you are not familiar with Tudor history and characters, reading this book will feel like reading Greek and Latin. This book is primarily for historical lovers, who would like a different take on events. Give this book a miss if you haven’t read any book on Tudor history. Start with some of the easier books out there (highly recommend Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy), and then read Wolf Hall.
You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon