“When the cardinal came to a closed door he would flatter it – oh beautiful yielding door! Then he would try tricking it open. And you are just the same, just the same…but in the last resort, you just kick it in.”
A few weeks ago I did a post called ‘3 Books I Should Have Read But Haven’t’, and number two on the list was Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, which had been sitting on my shelf for months. Having now read it, I really wish I’d got round to it sooner!
The novel follows the fate of Thomas Cromwell, a lowborn boy from Putney who comes to be one of the most powerful courtiers at the court of Henry VIII. It follows him from his childhood with an abusive father, through his years working for his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, a string of family tragedies, and his own meteoric rise.
The most noticeable thing about the book when you first begin reading it is the unusual mode of narration. Whilst a majority of novels (particularly in the historical fiction genre) are written in the past tense, Wolf Hall is told in the present tense, as though things are happening as you read. Although it took a few pages to become accustomed to this style, and actually understand what was going on, this ended up being extremely effective. Instead of it seeming like things being repeated after the event (and therefore being history), the present tense allowed the reader to experience things along with Cromwell, and made the setting of Tudor England seem more vivid and immediate.
However, the best thing about Wolf Hall, was in my opinion, the characterisation of the commonly vilified courtier Thomas Cromwell. Whilst he is still the cunning, ambitious and at times ruthless man he would have had to be to rise so far at court as a commoner, Mantel’s portrait is anything but that of a Machiavellian villain, or smarmy social climber. In fact, Mantel’s Cromwell is one of the most dynamic and charismatic characters I have encountered in a novel in a long time, and rather than rising through the Tudor court by being a suck-up, sneak or just lucky, he is in fact an extremely pragmatic man who does what has to be done. Whilst not everything he does is honourable (Cromwell is of course famed for being behind the dissolution of the monasteries and putting Anne Boleyn on the throne, only to turn on her), the placing of the reader as his shadow provides a unique understanding of his actions and motives, and the many losses he experiences makes him a sympathetic character.
The other characters in Wolf Hall are equally well-drawn. Cardinal Wolsey as Cromwell’s father figure is here given a perhaps more forgiving portrayal than is typical, and Cromwell has a genuine respect for him. Henry VIII himself, whilst still being the changeable, pleasure-seeking monarch we often see, also has more of a human side in the novel. Instead of a power-crazed tyrant, he comes across as someone who is constantly being manipulated by everyone, and as such makes few decisions that are actually his own.
Thomas More is also an interesting character in Mantel’s interpretation of the Tudor court. Whilst he commonly plays the good, pious man to Cromwell’s ruthless, conniving villain, he is here cast as a somewhat pompous and fanatical figure against Cromwell’s practical, grounded portrayal. Although there is certainly something honourable about his steadfast refusal to go against his beliefs, even when faced with death, he is hardly a martyr in Wolf Hall. His treatment of his wife and ideas about women, as well as his hypocrisy (being a godly man who tortures people for their differing beliefs) renders him a far less sympathetic character than history tends to have him.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Wolf Hall, and can certainly see why it was so critically acclaimed. I find that in historical novels the risk of becoming bored tends to be higher, because often you know what will happen before you even read a word. Therefore Mantel’s extremely different take on the well-known Tudor story was riveting, and at times I found the book hard to put down. I really liked that Mantel went against the usual selection of Henry VII or one or another of his wives or mistresses as the protagonist of her Tudor novel, and instead chose to give insight into a historical figure who is commonly regarded as a villain. I also liked the present tense mode of narration as it gave a sense of immediacy that made the book all the more engaging.
So, if you haven’t got round to reading Wolf Hall yet, as I hadn’t, I would urge you to do so, and soon. You’re missing out!