Are you ready for my review of “Wolf Hall”? More importantly, am I?

A few weeks ago, I finished Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall. First I’ll give you my impressions leading up to reading it. Then, I’ll tell you how I felt after reading it. And last, I’ll give me review. It’s like eating the bun of a cheeseburger before you eat the meat.

I had been waiting for weeks, checking the release date, making sure they hadn’t moved it up, reading all the excerpts and reviews I could from UK websites, etc. I even listened to her speak about the book at the LRB bookshop along with Sarah Dunant. I don’t even know why I was so excited about this book. It’s not even a time period I particularly care for, the Tudors are overdone, out of the oven and into the bin, really. But it was promised to be a different treatment, a {brace yourself} revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. Probably the desire for something I couldn’t have put me over the edge, more than anything else. So I bought it, hardcover, no freebies this time.

After finishing the book, I have continued to think about it. It’s brilliant subtlety, it’s overt play with perspective, pronouns and language. It is always the curse of a good book. You have to find something that’s really good, but completely different, or else you’ll meld them together in your mind. But you find that nothing is quite that good, so you read something pretty bad to lower your standards, so you can be impressed when you read another great one. So I’ve been slowly meandering through the New York Review of Books and Maisie Dobbs (see my previous post). Not that either of these are bad, they are different and entertaining or informative, while Wolf Hall was brilliant.

Hilary Mantel had quite a task in front of her. Just about everyone of adult reading age knows the story of Henry VIII, six wives, no male heirs, schism with the Roman Catholic Church, the founding of the Anglican religion, etc. But really, instead of rehashing all that, she makes her focus Thomas Cromwell. From my very small bit of memory about Cromwell, I always remembered him as Henry’s watchdog, without much sense, good at being told what to do, and split up the church and helped a misogynist to find a woman of male child-bearing capabilities.

But this Cromwell is a family man, loyal first to Cardinal Wolsley (even after Wolsley loses favor with the king), and then right at Henry’s side. He has travelled extensively into Europe and trained in many professions, and though continuously reminded of his low birth, he is always trusted and feared by those above and below him. He is a businessman and a lawyer, he loves his family, those he loses and those who remain. He is a human, smart and wily, but sad and concerned.

Wolf Hall is more than just a character study of Thomas Cromwell, however. It touches and shares some of the more humanistic aspects of Henry, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More.  The reason Henry wants to be divorced from Katherine of Aragon is because he is in love with Anne Boleyn. They act like young lovers in public and they both get flustered around one another. Anne, however, is not portrayed as this passive little sparrow, who was swept up by the king and then left after she was unable to bear a male child. For Mantel, Boleyn and her family engineered all of this, set it up, played the cards right, and luckily, the king fell in love with her.

Mantel does not quibble about character flaws, she is upfront about who people are, no postmodern ambiguity here. Throughout the book, one comes to hate Thomas More.  He attempted to institute an English Inquisition, and personally tortures heretics throughout the book. His downfall comes when he refuses to sign the Act of Supremacy, which states the Henry VIII is the supreme head of the Church of England. He hates Cromwell and is jealous of his skillful maneuvering.  I suppose More has always been admired for his ideals, his staunch adherence to church dogma, and was willing to give his life for his beliefs. But in Wolf Hall he is damned.

So there’s the characters, what’s the story you ask? Well, it’s history as you know it. We are skipped from Cromwell’s childhood to a point in life where he has already become a trusted advisor of Cardinal Wolsley’s. Wolsley loses favor, lots of others vie for position, Henry has fallen in love, the Pope refuses divorce, Cromwell gets it for him, etc., etc.

Really, for me, the part of the novel that makes it all worth it is the last paragraph or so.  Just to set it up, Cromwell is setting up the king’s itinerary.

“From Bronham-we are now in early September-toward Winchester. Then Bishop’s Waltham, Alton, Alton to Farnham. He plots it out, across country. The object is to get the king back to Windsor for early October. He has his sketch map across the page, England in a drizzle of ink; his calendar, quickly jotted, running down it. ‘I seem to have four, five days in hand. Ah well. Who says I never get a holiday?’ Before ‘Bronham’, he makes a dot in the margin, and draws a long arrow across the page. ‘Now here, before we go to Winchester, we have time to spare, and what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours.’ He writes it down. Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.”

All that. 500+ pages. And the name of the book that foreshadows what we already know is to come. Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. Brilliant. Mantel shows us that the actions of humans are sometimes planned out and sometimes not. That history is human actions, decisions, choices made and unmade. And that people are more than abstract terms of monarcy, government, religion, love, greed, and naviete. You should read it. Really.

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