Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009) – Fiction
Whew. This one took me a bit. Not to scare you from taking the plunge, but Wolf Hall tops out at a little over 600 pages. It is a challenge. There are some books that test the reader – and end up defeating me (looking at you, Lolita). However, Wolf Hall was one of those intimidating books that is worth the finish.
Wolf Hall is the first in the trilogy by Mantel, focusing on the life of Thomas Cromwell. If you aren’t heavily versed in the machinations of the Tudor Court of King Henry VIII, you still have likely heard the name Thomas Cromwell. He was a real person. He lived during the 1500s, a son of a blacksmith, grew to become one of the richest men in England, and eventually rose to become King Henry’s most trusted advisor.
There have been a solid bit of shows and movies surrounding old King Henry. And rightly so – his life and the turning of events that surround it make it one of the most interesting and dramatic moments in history. While heavily fictionalized, Mantel still maintains the key moments of this time period.
King Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, is unable to produce him a male heir. While this causes frustrations for Henry, he turns his eye to another pretty woman – Anne Boleyn. Soon, Henry wants to annul his marriage to Katherine and marry his rightful partner Anne. Of course, the Catholic Church and Pope Clement in Rome don’t really agree with this annulment. Enter – the Great Schism. Henry, with the assistance of Cromwell, manages to finagle Parliament into recognizing him as the Head of the Church and the separation between England and Rome begins, setting off one of the most significant moments in history.
Quite a bit to get through! Mantel brings some of these great moments in history to reality by using the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. We see through Cromwell the understanding of court intrigue, power, money, and sex. We learn, as Cromwell does, how to obtain power and keep it. We walk with Cromwell as he understands Henry and his faults – his desire to be loved an d his need to feel wanted by the people in his role as king.
Through this we meet a host of historical figures like Sir Thomas More, William Tyndale, Eustache Chapuys, and Thomas Cranmer. In fact, the book begins with a list of cast of characters – needed throughout the book to remind yourself of why certain people are important (or not). Mantel also uses a unique style of writing that feels more like the flow of thoughts through someone’s brain. At times, it is confusing to know who is talking – but if you orient yourself that generally you are always looking through the mind of Thomas Cromwell, it is easier to move through the novel.
While a big bite to take, Wolf Hall is worth the read. Wolf Hall was the winner of the Man Booker Prize. Bring Up the Bodies and the recently released The Mirror and The Light follow and wrap-up the trilogy. Wolf Hall was made into a television series, produced by the BBC starring, Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Damian Lewis as King Henry.
The cardinal expected the gratitude of his prince, in which matter he was bound to be disappointed. For all his capacities he was a man whose emotions would master him and wear him out. He, Cromwell, is no longer subject to vagaries of temperament, and he is almost never tired. Obstacles will be removed, tempers will be soothed, knots unknotted. Here at the close of the year 1533, his spirit is sturdy, his will strong, his front imperturbable. The courtiers see that he can shape events, mold them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world.
Lover of the written word.