Friday, April 15, 2011

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

History is ever so fascinating, as long as the right person gets the job of telling it. Hilary Mantel's version of how King Henry VIII manages to declare himself the head of the English church is a captivating culmination of five years worth of research that will inspire any reader to learn more about English history.

The star of Wolf Hall is Thomas Cromwell, who Mantel depicts as a brillant thinker and a good person who tiptoes around his monarch to do both good for his country's government, while staying in the good graces of his king. He is the captain of compromise. Cromwell is the son of a commoner, son of a blacksmith who gathers a wealth of experience working in different industries in various European countries. By the time we meet Cromwell as a man, he is a multilingual lawyer who fully understands the law, banking, and the politics of Europe. He is also well versed in the scriptures, and it is rumored that he can recite the entire new testament from memory. Cromwell can argue any point and come out on top. Thomas Cromwell is, well, amazing.

Of course, he has his enemies, but during the 1530's, the decade in which this book takes place, Cromwell is at the top of his game, even earning an earldom, something unheard of for someone of such low birth. Mantel portrays many important people of this time period, gracing them with her novel impersonations of what they might have been like. Thomas More, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, William Tyndale, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, and all the rest. I was particularly interested to learn something of William Tyndale, since this is the first time I'd heard the name of the man who had first brought us The Bible in English. Much of Tyndale's wording survives to this day. He was eventually burned as a heretic, though Henry VIII was to encourage English translations of The Bible just four years after he condemned Tyndale to death.

Mantel's writing is also attractive; she doesn't write in the English of 1530, for it would be too hard for most of us to get through over 500 pages of that, but she does seem to adopt enough older phrases to make the narrative seem credible. Another quirk of her writing style within these pages was that the pronoun he, unless otherwise clearly stated, refers to Thomas Cromwell. At first, I found myself backtracking and reading passages twice, but once I got used to the rule that Cromwell was he with a small h, things were much clearer.

In the end, I feel as though I've had an inside peak at the lives of Henry VIII and his court during the 1530's, and it has become very clear why this very important decade was glossed over in junior high history class: there's too much sex, rumors of sex, and bloody, gruesome violence.

The narrative does not reach Ann Boleyn's untimely ending, much less Thomas Cromwell's. King Henry VIII is portrayed as a very volatile man who is too dependant on his advisors and not able to think clearly enough on his own. He (King Henry VIII) is a dangerous man to serve.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction.


TLP said...

Wonderfully written review, as always.

I think I'd like to give it a try. I don't like historical books. But I'm curious about this one.

actonbell said...

I'll try to remember to bring it over:)