Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel

It’s the winner of the 2009 Booker Prize. It is historical fiction. It is British. I went into Wolf Hall with great expectations but it took me a whole month and a lot of pushing myself to get through it. Blame it on the mammoth 650 pages, on my less than deep knowledge of British history, on the disconcerting present tense of the narrative. But finish it I did, coming away more familiar and more than a little fascinated with a quite incredible part of British history.

Wolf Hall is set between 1527 and 1535…or thereabouts. For some kind of perspective, 1530 was the year Babur died leaving Humayun a tentative hold on his Indian territories. The Vijayanagar kingdom is in its last throes in the South. The reformist movement against the Church is in full swing in Europe and Shakespeare’s birth is still a quarter of a century away.

England is under the Tudor king Henry VIII. Whom we all know had innumerable wives and proved to be the reason for England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. The hero is a Thomas Cromwell (not the Oliver Cromwell of the civil war fame, but a distant ancestor), advisor to Henry and the chief architect of the break with the Catholic Church. Apparently, Thomas Cromwell is a villainous figure in British history, a ruthless conniving man who amassed wealth and quite immense power through dubious means. Hilary Mantel has a different take.

Mantel writes this novel from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective. We see 16th century England in all its flux, its cruelty, its opportunities… through his eyes. A commoner who rises to one of the most powerful positions in England, Mantel’s Cromwell is a man of varied abilities. He speaks a dozen languages, knows the New Testament by heart, is well versed in the law, economics and even poetry. A self-made man, he epitomizes meritocracy in an age when blood is everything.

In the first part of the book, we see him as the right hand man of Cardinal Wolsey, a position he has got to after spending years in Italy and Belgium in various trades. Wolsey is of course Henry’s Cardinal, his conduit to Rome. We see Henry trying to get out of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (quite a fascinating portrait of a tough, proud queen) and when the Cardinal cannot convince Rome of Henry’s right to marry again, he falls out of favour with the king, dying a lonely death. It sets the stage for Cromwell’s ascendancy with Henry.

Cromwell with his powers of persuasion, his practical ruthlessness, his nuanced reading of people, is able to do what the Cardinal could not… find a way for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. It takes an irreparable break with the Church, passing laws that are not the most popular, hanging a number of Bishops and Cardinals, including Thomas More and making the king supersede the Church in England. In the process, he gets Anne, a woman he does not particularly like, the position of Queen. Anne’s portrait is a powerful one – a strong woman who uses sex (or the withholding of it) to get what she wants, a lowly noblewoman who stands up to a queen, cruel to her sister, kind to those she thinks would be useful, manipulative, willful, vindictive.

The rivalry with Thomas More is quite a riveting part of the book. Apparently, popular history has More as the wronged hero and Cromwell as the villain who is responsible for hanging him. Mantel shows More in a very poor light – as a cold zealot, cruel in his idealism, prescribing harsh punishment to people who do not believe as he does. He runs a brutal house, is mean to his wife and even at his death, prefers the utopia of martyrdom to giving up on his ideals.

In contrast, his arch rival Cromwell is all practicality, leaning towards the reformist influence in the Church, yet never zealously so. He tends to the way of compromise, of meeting people mid way, to make things work. More sneers at Cromwell’s practicality, his almost centrist approach… and pays the price with his head.

The book ends with Anne as queen, with a daughter, with a 2nd miscarried pregnancy and an almost imperceptible fading of the honeymoon days. Mantel chooses to end the book at this point, making the More- Cromwell and Anne-Katherine clashes the centerpieces of the story. We as readers know that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Anne does not get to be queen for long, Wolf Hall (the residence of the Seymours, one of whom gets to be the next queen) is the next port of call…and Cromwell himself will one day fall out with the king and be left to die. But that is left to another book, perhaps.

Mantel makes the turmoil in 16th century England real in a way only good historical novels can. There is very little description, the language is today’s, the period piece is lightly told, never overwhelming character or plot…yet we can acutely sense the cruelty in the burnings, the fright of the plague, the deadly intrigue at court. The bigger issues of church vs state, of religion as bigger than nation, of the centre of power shifting to global traders who control the money, they all form the backdrop to this interesting story.

The present tense and the third person narrative that is almost first person can prove challenging at times. So too does the sometimes non-chronological jumps in story. But there is a power in Mantel’s language that is difficult to ignore. It was 650 pages, it was a history I did not completely know (and a lot of nuances I missed therefore, I am sure), and I had to plough through it at times…but I am glad I read it. History can be spellbinding, especially when told as a story as interesting as this.


Anonymous said…
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small talk said…
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