Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, $36.99 HarperCollins
King Henry VIII and his famous henchman Thomas Cromwell are both well known characters from British history.
Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, in which she gives us a quite different perspective on this period in history. Would you have wanted to get in the way of either King Henry or Thomas Cromwell? If Wolf Hall’s characterisations are true, it might well have been a more pleasant experience than one could have anticipated. Mantel achieves this new perspective by starting her novel a decade or more before Thomas becomes indispensable to the King, a period that most of us are less familiar with. At this time Cromwell, a lawyer and merchant, is running his own business and also working for Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.
Mantel’s style is very descriptive and she observes background events and conversations beautifully. In this reviewer’s opinion, her style mostly works, although occasionally the pace does slow. The King is busy denying Queen Katherine of Aragon in accordance with advice from his courtiers. This advice contrasts with the stern response of the Pope and provides a sense of tension in the story. Bringing his common sense and legally trained mind to bear on what’s going on, Cromwell gives the King strategic advice, rather than telling the King what he wants to hear. Consequently the King appreciates that in Cromwell he has found an advisor who is not just out for himself.
Whether the older Cromwell continues to be so selfless is not in this book’s ambit. Wolf Hall, by the way, is the home of Jane Seymour’s family. Her story comes after the specific timeframe of this novel. However she is there almost from the beginning as lady-in-waiting to the new Queen, Anne Boleyn. It’s altogether a clever new approach to some important British history.
As a reader one feels privileged to be a fly on the wall as Cromwell's life unfolds with its daily opportunities, tragedies and comic moments. Warning: as it’s such a whopper, you may choose to skim read Wolf Hall, but the language of many passages is such that it’s well worth slowing down in order to savour it.