If you love a good literary challenge, add Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel to your reading list.
Published in 2010 and winner of the Man Booker Prize, this piece of historical fiction is brilliantly crafted and extraordinarily well-researched.
That said, it did have the tendency to put me to sleep.
Hence why I referred to reading Wolf Hall as a challenge. Mantel’s masterpiece is too good to be light entertainment; you must prepare to engage your brain.
I was warned this mammoth 650-page tome would require some commitment to see through to the end. Many people have started Wolf Hall with good intentions, only to see it gathering dust on the bedside table.
I first heard about the book when I was listening to a BBC History Podcast. Peter Kominsky, the director of the television dramatization of Wolf Hall, was being interviewed. The BBC series sounds dark and dramatic, everything I look for in historical drama. I was hooked.
But I wouldn’t be a true bookworm if I watched the series before reading the book…
Wolf Hall is set in Henry VIII’s England. It follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a prominent lawyer from this period.
The novel opens during Cromwell’s childhood, to him being physically beaten by his volatile father, Walter. Cromwell grew up in Putney – very much the wrong side of the Thames in those days – and was the son of the town’s brewer and bully.
The story then leaps forward several years, to when Cromwell is working as Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man. Cromwell’s adolescence, spent mostly abroad in Europe, is shrouded in mystery. Everyone wonders how this commoner rose to such prominence in Wolsey’s entourage.
“It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fantasies, fears and desires.”
Highly intelligent and intuitive, Cromwell continues to rise well above his rank and eventually becomes one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and most cherished friends.
But you know what they say about kings. “Kings have no friends, only subjects and enemies” (A Game of Thrones).
In his proximity to Henry, Cromwell is one of the most feared men in the kingdom, but his position is fragile. His success depends largely on the whims of one woman: Anne Boleyn.
Wolf Hall offers an extraordinary glimpse of Henry’s courtship with Anne through Cromwell’s eyes, painting the reader a different picture of this well-covered storyline.
Mantel does an excellent job of providing insight into Henry’s character, while at the same time bringing Cromwell – one of the most under-celebrated personalities of this period – to life.
Firstly, I am glad I consulted Goodreads before picking up Wolf Hall. I remain immensely grateful to the reviewer Teresa Tumminello Brader, who shared an incredibly useful tip for approaching the book.
“The thing to remember when starting this book is that 99% of the time the pronoun ‘he’ refers to Cromwell, even at times when the sentence structure makes it seem like ‘he’ would be someone else. It took me a short while to realize this, but once I did, I was fine.”
I think the use of ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell works very well. It creates an illusion of overhearing Cromwell’s thoughts. It almost feels like you are listening in on a conversation you shouldn’t be privy to.
The effect is the same when Cromwell is talking to other characters. The whole time I was reading, I felt like I was listening with a glass to a wall, or illicitly eavesdropping on a secret conversation. This was especially pronounced during Cromwell’s visits with Anne Boleyn.
Although confusing at first, I grew to appreciate this style. I feel it is perfect for historical fiction, where the line between reality and embellishment is always blurred. To tell the story using ‘I’ would be to assert Cromwell’s identity. Mantel’s use of ‘he’ leaves much more room for interpretation.
Nevertheless, you get a strong sense of Cromwell’s character – or at least how Mantel imagines him to be. He is equal parts cold and warm, remorseless and generous, calculating and spontaneous. At first men dismiss him, then they respect him, but at all times they are wary.
If Cromwell is your man, he will be loyal to the end. If he is not, you face an inexhaustible adversary.
“Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,” says Thomas More, “and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.”
I grew to admire and empathise with Cromwell, but even after 650 pages of reading his thoughts, I remained unsure as to what he would do next. I knew his eventual fate, which made observing his decisions feel bittersweet.
I expected the book to end when Cromwell’s life ended, but to my surprise I discovered there was a sequel upon finishing the last chapter. Reading Wolf Hall felt like running a marathon – I am drumming up energy to tackle Bring Up The Bodies.
Although tiresome in parts, and written with such dense prose that it often put me to sleep, I am glad I saw Wolf Hall through to the end. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Tudor history.
“He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.”
“Why are we so attached to the severities of the past? Why are we so proud of having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues? It’s not as if we had a choice.”
“You mustn’t stand about. Come home with me to dinner.” “No.” More shakes his head. “I would rather be blown around on the river and go home hungry. If I could trust you only to put food in my mouth – but you will put words into it.”