Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

Whenever I read a historical novel, I make some kind of disclaimer about the genre not being something I’m usually interested in; hence why Wolf Hall sat on my to-read list for many years — on the one hand I felt swayed by all the recognition it received and on the other uncertain, because would I really like a book about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell? Thomas Cromwell, who I seriously didn’t know one thing about until I read blurbs about Wolf Hall: did I really want to read a book about this guy? I think it was when I read Hilary Mantel’s essay about Kate Middleton, “Royal Bodies,” that I was swayed to try this book despite its mismatch with my usual interests. (And then I waited several more years to get around to it.)

Mantel’s narrative maintains a very contemporary and literary style while being focused on the earliest years of modern history. Centering the story on Cromwell, a man of “low birth” who rose the highest possible position beneath the king, by its nature flips the expected order that the royals would be the focus on the story, rather than at times bordering-on-comical side characters in Cromwell’s world. She creates a sympathetic portrait of a man involved in the extensive legal and political maneuverings that allowed King Henry to annul his marriage with his first wife in order to marry Anne Bolelyn.

Throughout most of the book other characters routinely make comments amounting to, “Cromwell, what are you doing here?” while he builds his influence and standing in order to help the king achieve his desire, thus he continues to operate from an underdog position even when he eventually rises from his low position. He is committed to helping those around him, so he doesn’t come off here as selfish and power-hungry, but rather motivated from a desire of stability for those around him, whether his family or other less advantaged people. The changes Cromwell helped bring about eliminated the supremacy of the Roman Catholic church over England, which was mostly a means to an end to make Henry’s annulment possible, but was helped along by what Cromwell and other people of the time saw as the Church’s abuse of power and lack of genuine godliness. I’m guessing that people already familiar with this era of English history could appreciate the novel on a different level, though if readers get confused, Wikipedia entries will catch them up handily.

Wolf Hall can get tedious in parts — when I was about 75-90% done, I felt like I was losing interest fast, and wondering how the book was going to end, especially in order to set up the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies — and was I really going to read the next book? So perhaps I could just quit at any time. (And besides, I already read everything on Wikipedia.) But it does get to an enticing ending, though time will have to tell if I continue on the next book and beyond (the final book in the series is expected in 2019). There are enough details about living in the 1500s to be happy about not living in that era. For one thing, not dying from a mysterious sweating sickness that could kill someone in the course of one day. Or being brutally executed for disagreeing with the king. There are so many meetings and councils that go on for many pages, but every so often there is a lovely, poetic passage, like this one:

Suppose within every book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.