originally written 12/09/2010
I rarely read prize-winning books, not out of any principle, but often because I’m the last to know, or the subject doesn’t interest me. I had heard about Wolf Hall for awhile and was attracted to the cover, which seemed to suggest something historical. When I found out it was about the Tudors, I thought I would give it a try (by then it had won the Booker Prize). My reading of it was rapid and involved but because, indeed, the book is so popular, I had to interrupt my reading to give it back to the library and then take it up again about a month later. So I’ll do my best in this review.
I would really like to see it from the perspective of someone who hadn’t watched The Tudors, because I think everyone’s vision of the Tudors is dependent on the version they saw last. Viewing the characters in Wolf Hall by identifying them with the actors from the TV series is not, I think, detrimental, and since most of them correspond and were played very memorably in the series, it actually sort of does the book a service . In any case, that, general knowledge, and the film of The Other Boleyn Girl were what I took with me.
As Hilary Mantel suggests, Thomas Cromwell is an arresting subject for a historical bio-fic, because of the great big factual recesses where she could invent painstakingly researched, wholly convincing, and sympathetic character out of a trove of business letters and a none-too-kind historical perspective. First off, let’s not mince words: a historical work of this scope, this length and amount of detail, which manages to deal humanely and believably with so many characters while at the same time offering an accurate portrait of the age with verisimilitude is really an achievement. The book is also impressively paced (she took the unusual decision of writing it in third person, but nearly first person, present tense) and contains lines of poetic and thoughtful reflection.
The prologue, so to speak, begins in 1500 when Walter Cromwell, an erstwhile brewer and general bully and troublemaker, causes his son Thomas to run away. Thomas’ years as “a ruffian” in Europe are left suitably vague but leave him multi-talented and for a man of no title, he is on the upward climb and employed in the service of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is well-written as a florid but in the end pitiable man of considerable intelligence and vanity. Cromwell stays with Wolsey to the end, and both his loyalty and shrewdness are rewarded when, instead of going down with his master, Cromwell eventually reaches great heights as King Henry’s most trusted confidante. So not only do we see Cromwell from the age of fifteen to the age of fifty, we watch Henry from a young monarch of thirty-six to a robust man of forty-five. I always admire authors who can write characters through the entire spans of their lives (convincingly).
This Cromwell has interesting perspectives on the ladies at court, particularly Mary Boleyn, with whom he has a flirtation and a continual sizing-up, and the dimly-regarded but kind Jane Seymour, who Jane Rochford encourages him to pursue. Of course, the book ends before Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace, so any relationships beyond his marriage to Liz Wykys and his affair with her sister Johane after his wife’s death are speculative. The portrait of Anne is scalding, and I think as a reader I’m not alone in wavering between admiring and despising her.
You quickly realize, from the days of Cromwell’s service with Wolsey to his time as right-hand man, that Henry Tudor gets away with many reprehensible acts just because he is king. All debate about the divorce, his treatment of Katherine, and his approach to religion aside, his casual attitudes toward burning heretics at the stake, as well as his irrepressible need to sate his lust during Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy on her sister Mary, hardly set him out as a model citizen and certainly not as a role model ruler! This contributes, however, to his humanity, and because the portrait is absolutely rounded and (from what I know) uses the historical precedent to mould a believable consciousness, he is almost likeable. Mantel refers to the Tudor age as “England’s first soap opera,” and perhaps that explains our continuing interest in its dynastic sagas.
Mary Tudor, for example, has in recent years benefited from a bit of a rehabilitation, as I think people in general are starting to see more of a cause-and-effect relationship between her treatment as a young princess and the way she reacted as a ruler. I remember in 10th grade reading that the Princess Elizabeth was kept away from her father and, though well-educated, monetarily deprived; this made me feel sorry for her at the time, I remember. I’ve since learned that Mary endured the same treatment and more when she was a child and Elizabeth a baby. That she reacted so bloodthirstily during her reign is not really surprising, and Mantel brings out both the sympathetic and pitiable side of “dun-colored” Mary as well as her impossible pride and sneering qualities. Mantel’s portrait of Sir Thomas More is equally complex, even though the reader will side with Cromwell in not liking him very much in the end, and certainly not seeing him as a saint . While I can’t think of any one-dimensional characters, another meaty one worth mentioning is “Uncle” Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s uncle, who is vividly northern and is a bit of a primordial Gene Hunt.
I remember the creator of The Tudors mentioned in History Magazine that the show was primarily fact with other stuff thrown in (85% fact I think he said), and to be fair to it, the series does wrestle with the questions of government and religion so essential to understanding the period. Certainly Wolf Hall delves deep in terms of religion, as Cromwell was one of the main proponents of Protestantism (despite being employed by the Cardinal!). His beliefs, at least at first, are very pure: he wants an English Bible so that each Englishperson can read it. He therefore has many enemies, such as Katherine of Aragon, Chapuys the Spanish ambassador (ironically where most of the primary information on the historical Cromwell comes from), Bishop Fisher, Thomas More, and many others. His surprisingly earnest ally in religion is Anne Boleyn, but that means her downfall is his, too.
The book is really too big for me to give a comprehensive review that isn’t summary, and I don’t really have anything negative to say, other than bafflement with the title. Wolf Hall is the Seymour family seat in Wiltshire, which is where the book ends, but it seems to be to imbue Cromwell’s relations with Jane Seymour with false importance.
I see now that Mantel has written several books on subjects that interest me, so I will definitely put her on the list!