Monday, January 25, 2010

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is set at a dramatic period in English history – at a time when Henry VIII wants the Church to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. The King believes that Anne Boleyn will be able to give him a male heir to the throne.
The Church is not very amenable to his request. And so Henry VIII forces England to break away from the Catholic Church. As Mantel shows, the motivations are not just love and religion; it is also very much about money and power. Breaking away from the Church will also earn the King a share of its vast wealth and England will achieve independence and be its own authority.
As each section jostles for power, there is one man who stands above everyone else. Thomas Cromwell son of a blacksmith, runs away from home to escape his violent father. Exhibiting a great ability to survive, (a characteristic that will stand him in good stead in Henry’s court), he tries various professions before becoming Cardinal Wolsey’s aide.
The Cardinal is a man of great power, credited with putting England on the map.  The king supports him against the many detractors who point out that the Cardinal is running a parallel administration. The king is hopeful that the Cardinal can convince the Church to annul his marriage. “If only he wanted something simple,” says Cardinal Wolsey. “The Philosopher’s Stone. The elixir of youth. One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces.”
When it becomes clear that the Cardinal cannot get the Roman Church to agree to the annulment of Henry’s marriage, the King orders that he removed from power and stripped of all his wealth.
As a favorite of Wolsey, it is possible that Cromwell’s career is over. Cromwell remains loyal to the Cardinal but is also sure that he will not “go down with the Cardinal”. So with the ease of a chameleon, Cromwell changes his colors to become indispensable to Henry. Cromwell is "at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." Cromwell is in fact everything to everyone.
Cromwell interacts with the most powerful personalities of his day but there is also Cromwell the family man – interacting with his wife and daughters and the deep sadness he feels when they die in the plague.  Particularly memorable is the scene when a grieving Cromwell asks the priest if he can bury his daughter with her copybook in which she had written her name and the priest refuses.
Unlike Cromwell, the other characters do not come off so well. The court pretty much earns the title of wolf hall. The King seems more like a spoiled, capricious child than a monarch, Anne Boleyn is scheming and cold, the courtiers are petty and quarrelsome…Thomas More, another important figure in English history and Cromwell’s rival for power, is also painted heavily with dark colors.
Against a turbulent but riveting background, the book chronicles the story of one man’s rise from obscurity to power. Cromwell’s carefully crafted plans are masterly lessons in diplomacy, politics and statesmanship.  
Is Cromwell the true architect of England’s independence? Or just an opportunist who used the turbulent times to his own advantage?  Historians are divided on the matter and Mantel herself portrays Cromwell, warts and all, while pushing you to make the decision.
It is a difficult book to read – intimidating not just in terms of size (500 plus pages) but also in the vast historical canvas and the number of characters.  The book becomes slightly easier if you know a little of English history although the knowledge is by no means mandatory.
The book is given a more contemporary feel by the use of every day English, rather than the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ which was of course characteristic of the period.
Mantel is apparently working on a sequel. Although, history has clearly documented Thomas Cromwell’s life, I would certainly want to know how he measures up in Mantel’s next book!

1 comment:

  1. Aren't the Tudors particularly trendy these days? TV, novels, they're everywhere! I'm not sure I'll want to buy this one, but I might have a look at it in the library instead... You got me intrigued on the Cromwell character.