As I write this it’s New Year’s Eve, the traditional night for dreams of good intentions … and I want to tell you about a book I read this fall: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (published 2009). It was, my friends, a fantastic read. Fantastic. Really. (Yes, it’s 600 pages. All of them fantastic.) I have wanted to write about it ever since … and tonight I am.
The book came to my attention because Mantel’s follow-up,* Bring Up the Bodies—gosh, doesn’t that sound perfectly grim? I love it and I haven’t read it, though it’s on my nightstand—came out in 2012 and got a lot of attention, being quickly short-listed for the Man Booker Prize (and, subsequently, winning it). Wolf Hall had won the Man Booker previously, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Now … you know how I feel about much-lauded best sellers. (I tend to run the other way.) And historical fiction isn’t usually my first choice. Plus this one concerns a period of time that has been written about and dramatized ad infinitum. But Wolf Hall has been scrupulously researched and while it takes place in and around the court of Henry VIII, it centers on a character Americans know only peripherally, if at all: Thomas Cromwell.
(I kept wondering … Was this written primarily for an English audience? Does the English woman on the street know all this period history well enough to appreciate this story? Should I know more history? But then … I didn’t care. Because in spite of the fact that I knew little about the period—other than the six wives and the beheadings, my God, it’s bleak—the writing was mesmerizing and I was immediately sucked into the story. Even as I asked myself why I was working so hard—I’d have to go google another character every morning—and wondered if I should stop, I’d pick it up again every night. Oh, how I loved it!)
In a review of Bring Up the Bodies, Margaret Atwood tells us about the protagonist:
Cromwell rose from obscure and violent origins through a life abroad—sometime soldier, sometime merchant—to become England’s top go-to man, the prime maker-and-breaker of fortunes and spines, secretly hated and despised, especially by aristocrats. He played Beria to Henry VIII’s tyrannical Stalin: he did the dirty work and attended the beheadings, while Henry went hunting.
When Cromwell has been portrayed in popular media—the movie Anne of the Thousand Days, say, A Man for All Seasons (both derived from plays), or The Other Boleyn Girl (from a novel), not to mention Showtime’s The Tudors—he’s been played as ruthless, unscrupulous, intimidating, grasping. He was, after all, “not one of us” (noble folk, that is). But Mantel rounds him out and makes him someone you want to know. From a rough childhood in poverty he grows into a self-made man of wealth who loves peace and quiet. When he eventually rises to become a counselor to Henry, he strives only to keep the peace—by giving the king what he wants. And Henry wants a male heir (which he believes will avert civil war, and thus also keep the peace). You know this story, but don’t for a minute think you know it that well. Let me know when you start wondering what’s going to happen to that nasty Anne. :)
Still, I should warn you, it isn’t always easy going. There is the very limited third-person POV, which is confusing at first. A review in the New Yorker says,
The most striking feature of the book’s storytelling, however, is the tightness of its point of view. Everything is seen through Cromwell’s eyes. …
At [the end of the opening scene], we don’t even know who “he” is. We soon find out, and we never leave him again. Mantel violates grammar for his sake. Most of the “he”s and the “his”es in the book refer to Cromwell, including ones whose antecedents are not Cromwell. ([Cromwell] comforts a young man named Dick Purser, who is weeping: “Purser drops his shorn head against his shoulder.” The shoulder is not Purser’s; it is Cromwell’s.) This is strange, but after a while you get used to it, and understand that the book is, without qualification, Cromwell’s side of the story.
I’ve read many reviews and blogs that complain about those hes—it’s also told in present tense, which adds to the immediacy of the storytelling—but it works, it works seamlessly. (Though I can only imagine the—ahem—discussions Mantel had with her editor about all of this.)
You have to make your way through the POV but it will come, you’ll find the rhythm. And while there is much detail, it isn’t a difficult read: “Mantel’s characters do not speak sixteenth-century English,” the New Yorker says. “She has created for them an idiom that combines a certain archaism with vigorous modern English. It works perfectly.” The fact that you “know” these characters already helps you picture them, especially with Mantel’s clever characterization and beautiful writing. The dry wit—the humor—made me laugh out loud. The pacing kept me riveted. Honestly, it was a revelation.
In Margaret Atwood’s review, she says, “The historical Cromwell is an opaque figure, which is most likely why Mantel is interested in him: the less is truly known, the more room for a novelist.” Yes. But I think there’s more to it than that. The story of the English crown leading up to Henry VIII is one of rapaciousness and greed, of murder and cheating, of men who would do anything to win power over others. Sound familiar? It does to me. It’s a timely story. I think you might like it.
* In fact, the series will be a trilogy.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”