Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Date Started: July 3, 2013 Date Finished: September 9, 2013
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★
Every book has a story: I was always vaguely aware of Wolf Hall, I think, after it won the Booker in 2009. But I was never really driven to buy it until the second book in the Thomas Cromwell saga, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker in 2011. Bring Up the Bodies is a title that gets one’s attention, and damn is it a good title. As I already have a background interest/fascination with Tudor England, it was no chore to read Wolf Hall just so I could read a book called Bring Up the Bodies.
As a brief autobiographical note, the phrase “bring up the bodies” reminds me, appropriately, of my first visit to the Tower of London. We ended our tour with our Yeoman Warder in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. We filed into the pews and listened to the church’s history. “During the Victorian restoration,” the Yeoman said, “scores of bodies were dug up from underneath the floor, including those of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, and Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen.” Every single person lifted their feet off the floor to hear that!
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
Reading historical novels about real – and in this case, quite famous – people always piques my creative interest. It takes a particular skill and originality to make people care about a story they know the ending of, to sustain tension in the life of the person rather than just the death the reader knows he will meet.
Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell, a man born into a low family who rose to be Henry VIII’s chief minister. The first book in Hilary Mantel’s saga finds Cromwell when he worked with Cardinal Wolsey. He has a wife, a son, two young daughters, and a reputation for getting things done. He has already climbed high from the boy we met, beaten and literally lying in the gutter. But this is Henry VIII’s England, and his ministers will only be happy if the king himself is happy.
Wolsey and, by extension, Cromwell, are roped into Henry’s pursuit of a divorce from Katherine so that he may marry Anne Boleyn. Those readers among us who know history know that this does not go well for Wolsey, but this novel is so much more than the recitation of historical facts. Wolsey’s fall is painful to watch when seen from Cromwell’s eyes, a human moment that subverts how history has come to judge these people.
But from Wolsey’s fall and his own potential ruin, Cromwell rises. He keeps company with Anne Boleyn, he talks Henry down from nightmares in the middle of the night, he remains close (though not necessarily friendly) with those in the church whom he knew through Wolsey. Cromwell’s storied past has taught him all those pragmatic things that Henry’s lords and clergy never learned. And thus Cromwell – the blacksmith’s son, the Frenchman, the Italian, the soldier, the merchant – comes to sit at the king’s right side to decide England’s destiny.
A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.
Hilary Mantel is a sympathetic storyteller, and in places where one might not always expect. Though her characters are well-rounded, have vices and tempers, she always inserts something, a scene, a moment, a line of dialogue, that gives every character a moment of sympathy. As the novel is told from limited third person, though, our most developed character is Cromwell himself. Flashbacks from his early life with his abusive father, his life on the streets are a stark separation from the scenes of his life at court, and yet, in his head, in his manner, Cromwell is the same. He is not some desperate squire looking to ingratiate himself with the king. Cromwell is intelligent and cunning and holds fast to his orders. At this moment in the story, this is power he rightly deserves.
I came out of this novel with a few altered impressions of the people portrayed within. And even though I knew where several of the narrative threads were going – even though I know where Cromwell’s story ultimately ends up – Mantel always made sure the tension felt immediate. I was just as anxious for moments to play out as the characters were, even though I knew the answer. Mantel’s narrative style in the present tense helped with this, I think. It was a fascinating way to read – and, I imagine, a fascinating way to write – a historical novel.
It reminds me of the opening lines of another Tudor retelling, the TV series The Tudors. The show itself may not have been completely loyal to its history, but it made to capture the feelings and beliefs of the people and not just the historical icons they have become.
You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends.
There’s still a long way to go before “the end.” The Reformation is just beginning, Henry and Anne are only into the first years of their marriage, and Cromwell’s climb is not over.