Another one bites the dust! All 650 pages of it. I confess I was more than a little worried about reading Wolf Hall. It is not from a genre I normally read and I had tried and failed to read it once before – a long time ago. I know it was one of those books that would have forever rested dusty on my bookshelf, if not for this Booker Challenge. And oh! The loss to me!
Since I haven’t studied English history and knew nothing about Henry VIII other than his fondness for marriages and executions of former wives, I hadn’t a clue about what I should expect from this book. The initial chapters were tough reading, as I struggled with the old English words that the author uses, the endless characters that parade in and out of the scene (thankfully the author has wisely provided a list of characters and their residences), and the seeming absence of a plot. But the writing was vibrant enough and the story interesting enough to keep me reading. Cromwell, whom I wasn’t familiar with from history lessons, fascinated me and his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, his patron intrigued me. Although it was so clearly a relationship between Master and servant, it also seemed unexpectedly like one between equals, although I’m sure Wolsey would beg to differ if he had a say, or maybe not. Cromwell’s intelligence, ambition, resourcefulness, loyalty & willingness to work tirelessly in the service of his Master, earned him my admiration, although there was always an undercurrent of ‘is this guy too good to be true’, and ‘when’s the betrayal coming?’ After the Cardinal’s fall, I wondered how if at all he would salvage his life, his position, indeed his soul, but he does it with a dexterity that would put the world’s best jugglers to shame!
He’s nothing if not opportunistic, and finally I think that’s what saved him from sharing the Cardinal’s fate. That and his willingness to adapt & be practical aided by his ability to voice his opinions couched in non-confrontational language. And his spies of course! The book charts his rise to power as he works himself into the favour of initially Anne Boleyn and then the King, while his enemies play catch up. He always stays one-step ahead, thanks to his own power of astute observation and a loyal retinue of servants that bring him the gossip of the land. No piece of news is unworthy, no tale insignificant. Every bit of information locked neatly away in his head and his files for future reference and use! He had his enemies but even they couldn’t accuse him of being discourteous and abusive. He was even compassionate, more so than many of them were when in power. There are times when one wonders how he managed to do it all, how he found enough hours in the day! He managed though to have a pulse on the affairs of his King and his Country for the most part and remained loyal to them both at least during the course of this book 😛 I hadn’t realized he was responsible in large part for England’s separation from the Catholic Church & the Church Reforms that followed and earned him so many enemies, but I admire his courage for doing what he believed to be right and in the best interests of his King and Country. He was a dangerous diplomat (I mean that in a strictly complimentary sense!), and I think many modern-day politicians would do well to study him, learn from him! For all his manipulations (subtle though they were), he loved his country and helped his countrymen, especially the poor.
This book is a veritable encyclopaedia of information on the period in which it is set, 16th Century England, a rough, harsh country, plagued by poverty and disease, its Court riddled with scandals and intrigues, ruled by a King desperate for a male heir, to establish his supremacy and secure his happiness. The author knows her subject well and presents it in a wonderfully heady concoction of politics and people, in what I can best describe as a blend of fiction and non-fiction. It took me a while as I said earlier to get into the book, but once I did, it drew me in and I couldn’t wait to read what was coming next. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue. The conversations between Cromwell and More, when he is in the Tower; those of Cromwell with Anne, with the King are all so realistically done that I felt that only in this way and no other could they have spoken between themselves! Although it’s another slow read for me, after The Finkler Question, this one is equally satisfying and rewarding. I actually delayed writing this review coz I was reading up on what happened to Cromwell and Henry VIII eventually.
In summary, a great book, about a man who rose from being a blacksmith’s son, to the most powerful position of his land, in his time (second only to his King), through force of character, a keen mind, ambition and a fair measure of luck. My only crib, is regarding the title. Wolf Hall doesn’t come into the tale until much later and hardly even then. It does however play an important part in English History post Boleyn, when the King weds Jane Seymour whose home it is. I now read that Mantel intends this to the first of a Trilogy, so perhaps next stop actually will be Wolf Hall!
Another rewarding read needing patience and perseverance. I’m beginning to wonder whether these are Booker requirements 😛
So, 2008 and The White Tiger by Aravind Adaiga next. It’s a relief coz this one I’ve read before and I anticipate a fairly quick read 🙂
- Hilary Mantel writes second sequel to Wolf Hall (guardian.co.uk)
- Hilary Mantel’s Tudor saga to be a trilogy (cbc.ca)
- The many faces of Thomas Cromwell (Mark R. Horowitz) (ihrconference.wordpress.com)