Getting round to writing this review has taken so long that it has almost become a mental block. Quite why I’m not sure. Possibly one reason is the length of time it took to read and the size of the book meant that it took time to filter a reaction.
But to be honest it was probably more to do with it being a consequence of the impact Wolf Hall had on my reading that has delayed this review. It simply held me back from reading other things. When a book wins a major award like the Booker the temptation perhaps is to try and read even more deeply to look for the grains of genius that made it better than the others on the shortlist.
There were others on the list I enjoyed more, with The Little Stranger and The Glass Room being two that also provoked and entertained.
But Wolf Hall is a mammoth work of historical fiction that manages to take you into the world of Henry VIII from a fresh angle. We all know about the wives and the way the King went from young stud to gout ridden obesity but this book centres on when he was at the early stages of trying to part with his first wife.
The character of Thomas Cromwell is a mixture of legal expert, diplomat, world traveller and thug all rolled into one. He manages to win the favour of the King when it seems he might well end up doing the opposite because of his loyal connection with the out of favour cardinals.
As he keeps on the right side of Henry his own fortunes grows and those in his extended family prosper under his protection. But it could always be taken away with a click of the King’s fingers and that pressure eventually starts to tell on Cromwell, other courtiers and England itself.
The reasons why you remember Wolf Hall is perhaps because of the insight into the a period of henry’s reign from a different angle but in some respects the story struggles to maintain your interest. As Cromwell edges closer to a death caused by old age and the wear and tear of Henry’s reign you start to feel a great sense of relief with the ending.
Historical fiction is not a genre that I head for in bookshops and given the experience with this weighty tome it is not a view I will be changing in the near future.
The book enters its final phase with Cromwell trying to reason with the unreasonable and some of the last big figures of that part of Henry’s reign biting the dust after feeling the hangman’s noose.
The way that mantel has weaved the politics of the period providing a gentle history lesson as well as being able to describe the Tudor world of London and beyond is masterly. That as well as the strength of the story comes through as the lasting memory of a book that perhaps is slightly too long but is rarely a chore to read.
A review will follow soon…
Cromwell makes himself invaluable to King Henry by making it possible for him to dump Katherine and make Anne his Queen but as a result the schism with Rome intensifies.
On the one side are those keen to shake off the shackles of the Pope and on the other those loyal to the ideas emanating from Rome and backed by the Emperor. Cromwell manages to identify his enemies wisely and divides and faces them using the law to highlight even further those who would not swear allegiance to the King.
On a personal note he seems to be facing loneliness as his children marry and depart and the damp and the rain that seems to hug the Thames starts to depress the tireless lawyer and fighter.
Cromwell continues to ascend with the King seeing him on an almost daily basis but the old campaigner continues to keep an eye on a wide spectrum of activities. The politics of the court can be lethal with be-headings, burning at the stake for heritics and the prospect of the tower for those that get it wrong.
With Cromwell at the centre Mantel weaves in stories of Tyndale and his fight to get the bible into the hands of the masses in English, the strain with Rome and the demand from Henry for a divorce from Katherine as well as the financial state of the kingdom.
Cromwell knows that he is walking a dangerous line but seems to make the right allies and has a growing court of his own able to extend his hand and reach even when he is not there himself. As a literary character he is shaping up to be quite something.
More next week…
The more you get into this book the more you find yourself liking Thomas Cromwell. He has a mixture of morality and bravery that not only appeal to the King but help him stand out from the herd of those trying to save their own skins.
Cromwell starts to become more important to the King’s mistress Anne and as a result his standing within the group of courtiers that surround the court changes. He has the foresight, partly because of the beatings he took as a child, to sense the danger and manages to chart a course through his enemies.
What Mantel does, which is also successful, is clothe some of the names of history like More and Latimer in flesh and bones giving you a cast of characters that has depth.
As Cromwell gets closer to the king you start to appreciate how his character stands out from the general sycophants that surround the monarch. He is not only able to quote the bible and knows his law but he also comes from a background that is from the rough side so he has that element of threat and danger.
He also has loyalty and he remains a supporter of Wolsey long after the cardinal has been shipped away to the North and fights his corner with the King at risk of personal loss of position and influence.
What makes this book enjoyable are the one liners, usually Cromwell’s thoughts, that are thrown in with some providing a laugh and others provoking deeper thoughts. The device of narrating Cromwell’s thoughts as he sits alone but also as he deals with other characters is a clever one that works.
What starts to make this book a much more compelling read than you expect when you first start is the emergence of the character of Thomas Cromwell. With his master and protector Cardinal Wolsey out of favour and unable to see King Henry it provides a chance for Cromwell to act as a go between and emerge as an independent figure.
That independence is strengthened by the plague-fuelled demise of his wife and two daughters leaving him alone in an emotional way.
What starts to emerge is a political battle that could either help create or destroy Cromwell and that drives you on because you want to see how things develop.