Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize and frequent inclusion on many ‘best book’ lists, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a retelling of the extraordinary events of during the reign of Henry VIII. Like this year’s Orange Prize Winner The Song of Achilles, this is covering ground that has been covered many times before. There would be few who would not have a basic knowledge of the basic plot, especially with regard to the controversy over Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry his lover Anne Boleyn; the breaking with the Catholic Church and the violence that came with the English Reformation. These have been told and retold in books, film, television series, documentaries, and plays. Just in terms of literature, if book shops set aside a shelf exclusively for books dealing with this period in history, it would take up the whole shop. It isn’t all that surprising though, the events of that time are a classic example of fact being stranger than fiction. No writer, no matter how gifted, could make any of that stuff up, and be believed.
To be truthful, when I picked up Wolf Hall, I didn’t actually know much about it. i knew it was popular and critically acclaimed, and that the sequel Bringing Up The Bodies was walking off the shelves. I didn’t even read the blurb before I downloaded it to my Kindle. For some inexplicable reason I thought it was about Germany between the wars- don’t ask me where that came from, I feel a bit silly now. I realised my error on the first page though.
It begins in Putney in 1500, with Walter Cromwell beating the stuffing out of his son. It didn’t take long to realise that his son was Thomas Cromwell. Now I had just finished watching The Tudors on DVD, and I wasn’t sure that wanted to revisit the story so soon after, but I found that I couldn’t put it down. In fact I was hooked almost straight away- there was no need to apply my ‘100 page’ rule to this one. (If a book hasn’t grabbed you by about the 100 page mark- it won’t ever.)
The story unfolds as an eyewitness account from the point-of-view of Thomas Cromwell. For those in need of a historical memory boost, he was a key advisor first to Cardinal Wolsey and later to King Henry. The major historical events are there, but mainly as a way of anchoring the narrative to a timeframe. The book is actually about Cromwell himself. What is especially compelling about this book is seeing Cromwell’s meteoric rise from blacksmith’s son and petty thug, to mercenary on the France then Italy, to wool trader in the Low Countries, and finally to being the trusted right-hand to the most powerful men in England. We are drawn in to observe his domestic situation; we grieve with him over the loss of his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness; and we are given a glimpse of how dramas of Henry’s court affected ordinary people.
The portrait that is drawn is of a man that has, through intellect, cunning and a certain degree of luck found himself in the position of giving advice to power. Men live or die on his say-so. We see how he wields that power. He is also a man that engenders great loyalty from those closest to him, notably his son, nephews, and young men he has raised like his own demonstrate that they would lay down their lives for him.
This is a great book. If I did have a criticism though it would be that some of the editorial choices could have been better. There are many times when there will be two or more men in a particular scene, and we will be told the ‘he’ said something. or ‘he’ did something. In some cases it took a couple of re-readings to work out that ‘he’ meant Cromwell. In a story where everyone is called Thomas, Henry or Richard, or seems to be, this is an additional confusion that was unnecessary. That said, I got over it, and I enjoyed the book anyway.
Overall, this is excellent and deserving of the accolades heaped on it. Even if you feel like the Tudor period has been exhausted as a topic, you will find with this book that there is still more to be told about these people.