Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

This is the historical fiction that won the Man Booker Prize last year. For those who are not familiar with the prize it is awarded for the best original novel in English written by a citizen of the British commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe.

I like historical fiction.  I am very picky about those set in "my" Tudor era. I am willing to grant changes for dramatic purpose, I better be, given that I am an actor and I've lived with that in the dramas I've performed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. But, some of the attempts to be as historically accurate as possible can sometimes be less than desired.

On the other hand, Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel is very good with its history. This is the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell from his youth as the son of blacksmith and brewer Walter Cromwell through his service under Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey and his own increasing rise to power following Wolsey's fall. The book ends with the conflict with Sir Thomas More's refusal to swear the oath required under the Act of Succession 1534 and More's execution in July 1535.

What makes this a strong story is the decision to make it a narration by Cromwell himself. Mantel uses the gaps in the historical knowledge to create very interesting and plausible explanations for such things as - not knowing the birth dates of Cromwell, Mary and Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, why Cromwell became a soldier on the Continent, and creating a compelling backstory involving his family the majority whom died in the influenza and sweating sickness outbreaks of the late 1520's.

This is not your standard historical fiction or biography. Major events such as the Blackfrier's Trial of 1529 are not presented in a traditional fashion. You do not get the dramatic presentation of Katherine of Aragon's plea at King Henry's feet for her marriage. Instead historical events frequently happen offstage and are only mentioned in the book as reports to and from Cromwell to his bevy of servants and family members, However, what history she does relate is fairly accurate.

Mantel creates very interesting fictional stories of the relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey, the rise and fall of Sister Elizabeth Barton, and the contentious relationship between Cromwell and More.  Mantel writes very compelling dialogue between the two men, in particular the final scenes when More, refusing to swear the oath gets castigated by Cromwell for his own lack of mercy towards the heretics he had caused to be tortured, imprisoned and burned when More was Lord Chancellor.  This is a controversial view of Sir Thomas More giving Cromwell's frustrated viewpoint on a man known to history for losing his life for his religious convictions and becoming a Catholic saint after his death.

Thomas Cromwell comes off as a well rounded character as opposed to the cold calculating lawyer that is his usual portrayal. I challenge any reader of this book not to be moved by his relationships with his wife and two daughters, the difficult relationship with his son, Gregory and his more easy going relationship with his nephew Richard (the ancestor of Oliver Cromwell).

Fun side notes include coming up with a plausible reason for Anne Boleyn to be accused of having six fingers - this Anne Boleyn has a nervous habit of pulling her hand in and out of her sleeves. The character of Thomas Wriothesley is amusingly drawn. For those who do not know Wriothesley is pronounced Risley - so when he joins Cromwell's service he quickly gains the nickname "Call Me Risley" then shortened later to simply "Call Me."

And then there is the possibly baffling reason for titling this book Wolf Hall after the home of the Seymour famliy. The Seymours are minor characters in the book and the home is not visited. However, Mantel invents a romantic admiration for Cromwell with a member of the Seymour Family. I personally surmise that Wolf Hall is Cromwell's fantasy of domestic bliss and the end of the book leaves the strong possibility of a sequel as Cromwell plans the summer/fall progress of 1535 pencilling in 5 days at Wolf Hall----which will lead to Jane Seymour's becoming Queen.

According to at least one reviewer another possibility for the name comes from the microcosm of the corrupted court. We hear from Jane Seymour about the scandals between her father, John and his affair with his son Edward's first wive, Katherine Filloil

Enjoy the book, I did. And she is planning a sequel to cover the remaining five years of Cromwell's life. Ms. Mantel later decided to make that sequel cover the fall of Anne Boleyn.   Entitled Bring Up The Bodies it was published in May 2012.  A second sequel is planned to finish the story of Thomas Cromwell's life.

1 comment:

  1. "Cromwell comes off as a well rounded character as opposed to the cold calculating lawyer that is his usual portrayal."

    While it's true that he is not the Machiavellian villain here that he is in some portrayals, I didn't find him very well-rounded either...for someone critical perhaps of "A Man for All Seasons," Mantel has done the exact same thing, but with Cromwell and More switching places. In this More is the evil evil evil and black and white bad villain who can do no right, while Cromwell is something of a Mary Sue, perfectly perfect and brilliant and amazing in every way. He can do everything and anything well, he's always good and right, etc. I found it rather annoying, myself. One example was when he was acting like More marrying not for love was such a horrible thing to do, when he, in fact, did not marry for love either (even if he fell for his wife later). I can't remember everything, but I was doing a fair bit of eyerolling during the parts I read--at least, while I wasn't too busy trying to figure out who was saying/doing what.

    I can understand trying to be ~literary and unique, but the reader should not be so lost/caught up in trying to figure out what is going on that they get pulled out of the story. I think calling everyone "he" during conversations of multiple men during the whole book was quite unnecessary...

    I just found the book to be quite disappointing, I had heard so much buzz and praise for it, but then found it a struggle to get through and not very gripping at all. And it wasn't just More, it was the others as well--Anne and all of her accused lovers whom Cromwell brought down along with Anne are portrayed as obnoxious and horrible, horrible people, which seemed like an obvious ploy to make readers more sympathetic to Cromwell killing them. It just seemed very black-and-white to reminded me a bit of one humorous reviewer of Denny's Anne biography, who summed it up as, "[He] was amazing and everyone who didn't like him was just WRONG!!!"