Wolf Hall: A Novel

July 5, 2010 at 6:25 pm (Historical fiction, Literary Fiction) (, , , , )

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 5th printing, 2009
533 pages
Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction

Jacket copy: In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political power.
England is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and Catholic Europe oppose him. The king’s quest for  freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and creates a years-long power struggle between the Church and the Crown.
Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell, a wholly original man, both a charmer and a bully, an idealist and an opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: Cromwell is a consummate politician, hardened by years abroad and his personal losses. Implacable in his ambition and self-taught–it is said that he can recite the entire New Testament from memory, knows Europe’s major languages, and speaks poetry freely–Cromwell soon becomes the country’s most powerful figure after Henry. When Henry pursues his desire to marry Anne Boleyn, it is Cromwell who breaks the deadlock and allows the king his heart’s desire. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition–Tomas More, “the man for all seasons;” Katherine the queen; his daughter,t he princess Mary–but what will be the price of his triumph?
Witty and persuasive, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, in which individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. Employing a vast array of historical characters, and a story overflowing with incident, [Mantel] re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death.

Book report: You know, despite being half-crazed, overworked, and sick (I am now recovering from a bout of diverticulitis all ’round my appendix, which was a real fun time, let me tell you), I’ve actually gotten a fair amount of reading done this spring/summer, if less than usual. And a lot of what I read is worth sharing, so if you bear with me, I’ll try to unload it all at once, in as semi-organized a fashion as I am capable. Perhaps with a little less analysis–but does anyone even like that, anyways?

When I put Wolf Hall on my hold list at the MCL, I was 486th in line for it, but it only took maybe seven, eight months to get to me. I didn’t have much trouble holding out that long (patience is not numbered among my virtues), because I wasn’t really sure I actually wanted to read it (in part because someone had told me that it was hateful toward AB, and you know I am such a fangirl for her, but also because of that present tense thing). But everyone loved it, and it was about Thomas Cromwell, and it came rather sooner than I thought it would, so I kept it in my work bag and read it on my breaks and lunches. That habit kept me reading it longer than it would have taken me otherwise, but once I got past the first couple chapters and was hooked, I didn’t want it to end, so I dragged it out as long as I could. Because I loved it.

I really did. Mantel creates a Tudor England that’s vividly alive and very, very busy. There is so much detail that Wolf Hall will require either a careful and measured read, or several reads so as to be sure you haven’t missed yet another fascinating tidbit. Mantel’s constant shifts in time, place, and character create bold contrasts and layered meanings, humor and pathos, a chiaroscuro landscape of Cromwell’s world. And though it is Cromwell’s world, and we follow him about and catch glimpses of his intriguing past, lingering attentions are given to all the players, major and minor, from Wolsey and Henry to Holbein and Cavendish. (And yes, Anne.) (And also More, who is really an appalling sort of person. I hate him.) It’s a very different sort of historical fiction from what’s been bestselling of late (I am looking at YOU, Philippa Gregory), but it’s a really excellent sort. I’m thrilled there’s a sequel in the works, and will be getting myself a copy from Powell’s ASAP.

The one thing I couldn’t stomach, though, was his fascination with Jane Seymour, but I am somewhat unreasonable when it comes to that subject.

Read also: The Serpent Garden by Judith Merkle Riley, The Concubine by Norah Lofts, Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes, The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George, Green Darkness by Anya Seton, and a whole mess of non-fiction.

Cover: Quite striking, with the ENORMOUS title in black and white on red. I like the touches of the portrait details hidden within the letters. Iz niiice.

When the weather is too wet to hunt, Gregory sits poring over The Golden Legend; he likes the lives of the saints. “Some of these things are true,” he says, “some not.” He reads Le Morte d’Arthur, and because it is the new edition they crowd around him, looking over his shoulder at the title page. “Here beginneth the first book of the most noble and worthy prince King Arthur sometime King of Great Britain … ” In the forefront of the picture, two couples embrace. On a high-stepping horse is a man with a mad hat, made of coiled tubes like fat serpents. Alice says, sir, did you wear a hat like that when you were young, and he says, I had a different color for each day of the week, but mine were bigger.
Behind this man, a woman ride pillion. “Do you think this represents Lady Anne?” Gregory asks. “They say the king does not like to be parted from her, so he perches her up behind him like a farmer’s wife.” The woman has big eyes, and looks sick from jolting; it might just be Anne. There is a small castle, not much taller than a man, with a plank for a drawbridge. The birds, circling above, look like flying daggers. Gregory says, “Our king takes his descent from this Arthur. He was never really dead but waited in the forest biding his time, or possibly in a lake. He is several centuries old. Merlin is a wizard. He comes later. You will see. There are twenty-one chapters. If it keeps on raining I mean to read them all. Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.”





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  3. Jenny said,

    Bleeeeargh, I hate Jane Seymour. Goody-goody. But why so vehemently against Thomas More? I am fond of him, although a large part of that is that I had him mixed up with St. Lawrence as a kid, and St. Lawrence was a funny man.

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