Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell, chancellor of King Henry VIII. It’s a fictionalized telling of Cromwell’s story, beginning with his childhood as the son of a drunk, abusive blacksmith. The novel skips over Cromwell’s youth as a soldier in Europe, and plunges into his career as a bureaucrat in Renaissance England. Throughout the novel, many people comment on Cromwell’s humble origins, questioning how he can wield power over dukes with royal blood. However, in almost every such scene Cromwell outsmarts the nobleman, showing how his superior skill and knowledge (he has a photographic memory), as well as his control of the country’s finances, give him an advantage in almost every situation. Cromwell began as an assistant to Cardinal Wolsey, a power broker of the early part of Henry’s reign. The lengthy novel focuses on Wolsey’s decline, Henry’s legal battle to marry Anne Boleyn, and the trial and execution of Thomas More.
Luckily, I know this story fairly well already, from history class, The Tudors, and Phillipa Gregory’s novels. I might have been a bit lost if that background wasn’t there to help me, but since I was able to remember even minor figures like Bishop Fisher, the Spanish ambassador Chapuys, and Thomas Cranmer, I could fill in gaps and make sense of oblique references. Readers with less previous knowledge might want to bookmark some wikipedia pages to refer to while reading.
Growing up Catholic, and living close to Thomas More College, I have only ever heard More spoken of with reverence. Wolf Hall offers an entirely different point of view on the saint. For the first half of the book he is Cromwell’s professional rival, and the two men are presented as opposites. Cromwell, a man thoroughly immersed in the practicalities of the material world, describes More’s self-flagellation, hair-shirt-wearing and other pious acts as excessive. Nevertheless, the two men understand each other in a profound way. The biggest surprise to me were the graphic scenes of More torturing heretics as part of an inquisition. Mantel does treat More with dignity, especially at his end, but also shows him to be a self-righteous hypocrite in many ways. One of my favorite lines was when Cromwell mused that in the future More would be seen as a martyr: “Depend upon it, in the eyes of Europe we will be the fools and the oppressors, and he will be the poor victim with the better turn of phrase.”
The language and sentences of this novel are one of its main pleasures. Since its ideal reader is one who already knows what is going to happen in the plot, attention is focused instead on the ways that the Tudor court is described, and on the powerful men’s dialogues. The audiobook I listened to had a particularly effective narrator, Simon Slater, who conveyed raw strength, cold calculation, and bitter irony remarkably well, adding flavor to an already fascinating story.