Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Oh, this book was a fascinating read for me. As I said earlier, I am excited to review it here.
I really did not like it at first. I wrote my senior project in undergrad on Henry VIII and spent a full year living in the Tudor court, studying the conspirators and nutheads that glittered and spun around the King. I was exhausted at the end of it, and have not picked up nor looked at any Tudor literature since.

So, when my sister recommended this novel, I was interested. Can I re-enter that world? Am I ready? Much like speaking to an ex for the first time since a break-up, it was an awkward re-introduction that I was slightly apprehensive of.  So when I picked it up and deduced from the first few pages that it was a sympathetic portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, I was completely put off. I find him a historically admirable and intimidating character. He’s fascinating for his astronomical rise through the court, considering his humble beginnings as a blacksmith’s son. He managed to make himself Henry’s right-hand man, and weathered a lot of scandals that might have taken out a less nimble-minded man (especially when being ‘taken out’ in those days meant having a fickle, petulant and highly intelligent king cut of your head). He is not someone I ever expected to sympathize with, and I was not entirely willing to submit to the notion. I am still not wholly convinced.
I stuck with it for three reasons: the recommendation was a strong one, the writing was highly enjoyable and I found myself missing court.
I’m glad I did see it through – it’s a very good book. I don’t know it’s value as a historical text – obviously, it’s a novel, but I have no idea how much is conjecture and how much is based on solid fact.
I really got into her writing. I found myself highlighting lots of passages as I was reading. She has a certain gift for verbalizing (writing down?) complex thoughts clearly. It makes no sense to have them all here, because you really should just read the book and experience them yourself. I’d like to share a few though….
Favourites that made me laugh out loud (because I’m 12):
“’You…person,’ he says; and again, ‘you nobody from Hell, you whore-spawn, you cluster of evil, you lawyer.’” – Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell.
“’Oh, by the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus!’” –Duke of Norfolk
These following are interesting from the perspective of a historian. Mantel makes an interesting study of story telling. Because I find her choice to create Cromwell as a sympathetic character a sort of re-writing of history in and of itself, I think her own commentary on the fickle nature of story-tellers is pertinent and definitely to be considered. Historians and writers are highly aware (or should be) of the ways in which any past event is re-told by an actual person, as compared to some sort uninvolved machine. For this reason, it is vital that we always pay attention to who is telling the story and why. In these extracts, Mantel is doing a graceful job of identifying this conundrum.
“For hundreds of years the monks have held the pen, and what they have written is what we take to be our history, but I do not believe it really is. I believe they have suppressed the history they don’t like, and written one that is favourable to Rome.” – Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII.
“’Some of these things are true and some of them are lies. But they are all good stories.’” – Gregory (son) to Thomas Cromwell, telling his father about a book of stories recounting the reign of Henry VIII.

This one is similar, but distinct: the premise of the unsaid being as powerful, if not more powerful than the spoken. The notion that not speaking can be the purest form of expressing oneself is an old one, slowly disappearing. You do not leave yourself at the mercy of your word choices or the fallacious interpretation of self-involved listeners if you do not say anything. It always comes up when Thomas More is discussed. I am a relentless chatterbox, and there are many times I have put my foot in it by opening my mouth when it should have been closed. I could have waited five minutes.
“It was fear of plain words, or the assertion that plain words pervert themselves; More’s dictionary, against our dictionary. You can have a silence full of words. A lute retains, its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shrivelled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts.”
I really did enjoy the novel. I am still not entirely convinced that I can sympathize with Cromwell because he did do some questionable things in his career, but I am definitely more interested in him. He will follow me for a while.
One note to the non-historians out there: my sister struggled a bit in the beginning due to a lack of familiarity with the setting and players. I would recommend that you poke through Wikipedia a little before picking this up, otherwise certain events and characters might be a bit confusing. I struggled in some places, trying to remember how certain people fit in to the events of things. On my part, that might have more to do with the shady, gray memories of information struggling to surface, as I re-entered the court, confusing me and removing me from direct interaction with the story.
Oof, I think this is the longest review I’ve written in a while.

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2 Responses to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

  1. berin says:

    very interesting perspective!!!!! one thing that made it easier for me to read was when i started paying attention to the women — who really are the centerpiece of the book. i think it's interesting how mantel has cromwell look at them– his beloved wife and daughters, his admiration and (fear?) of anne boleyn, etc. it really shows how cromwell and boleyn changed the course of western government by separating church and state. the men all seemed to run together, maybe that's why i struggled so much!!!!

  2. ca says:

    You just made me think about how completely downplayed Henry VIII is in the whole narrative. I wonder if Anne Boleyn gets too much credit (this is something I wondered during my senior project too). She is definitely a very strong, intelligent women, and is (factually) credited with pushing Tynedale's bible into Henry's hands, but Mantel doesn't really credit Henry's own intelligence as much as I think she could. She references it once or twice, but he was a very well-educated, highly intelligent man who placed a high value on debate and learning. Mantel focuses more on the side of him that was inconsistent and childish. AH. It's too deep into my project for me. I also really enjoyed the portrayal of women in the novel – a sort of feminism that exists purely because a man loves his wife and daughters. It was beautifully written, and very touching.

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