Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Book Review: Wolf Hall [2009]

Thomas Cromwell, widely known as a villain in the court of King Henry VIII, is made sympathetic by Hilary Mantel, who builds Wolf Hall exclusively around his experiences. The narrative is so closely tied to his perspective, in fact, that it is often difficult to determine which "he" is being referred to--I found that it was best to always assume Cromwell. The result is a character study of a self-made man, the son of an abusive blacksmith, who was at the center of some very important changes in law and religion.

Set primarily between 1527 and 1535, Wolf Hall traces Cromwell's path from his position as Cardinal Wolsey's right-hand man to his ascendancy at court as Henry VIII's Master Secretary. Although common-born, Cromwell functioned for many years as the calculating power behind the English throne. While the courtship and marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn--which led to momentous changes (shepherded by Cromwell) in England's relationship with the Catholic church--is given its due, Mantel spends as much or more time on Cromwell's home life, his wards, and his relationships with businessmen and philosophers at home and abroad, focusing on the intricate workings of his busy existence. She doesn't disguise Cromwell's ambition, his love of wealth, and his belief that he can control everything, yet he still comes off sympathetically.

Conflict in the latter part of the book stems from Thomas More, the philosopher and former Lord Chancellor who refuses to support Henry's divorce of Katherine and marriage to Anne. Although Cromwell repeatedly tries to get More to swear to an oath to uphold the new order, he chooses instead to die for his faith. Mantel uses More, and many other examples, to drive home the seriousness of religious belief; in this world, it's a life and death matter. Over the course of the narrative, the church loses ground steadily, and those who had previously been branded "heretic" gain it. It's interesting to contemplate whether these changes would have taken place so rapidly had Henry not been so desperate.

Highly recommended, especially if you enjoy historical fiction. I listened to the audiobook as well as reading the paper copy, and the audio performance helped somewhat with the "'he,' which he does she mean?" problem.

Grade: A-

What to read after Wolf Hall:

  • Bring up the Bodies, the 2012 sequel about the fall of Anne Boleyn, which also won a boatload of prizes.
  • The Wives of Henry VIII, Antonia Fraser, a perennial favorite of mine.
  • The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett, is a similarly dense, but more swashbuckling character study of a fictional rogue Francis Lymond, set in 1547 Scotland. 
  • The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey--another revisionist history of a classic villain, this time Richard III.
  • The Other Boleyn Girl, which featured Anne's sister Mary (also a character in Wolf Hall).
  • The Swerve, which is not about the Tudors, but is also a book about the deadly seriousness of religion and great changes in the world.

The New Yorker on Thomas Cromwell and revisionist history.

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