Monday, July 6, 2015

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Homo homini lupus - man is wolf to man.

Floating on waves of post-book happiness. Blown away. So dark, menacing, so urgent. Painful. Cerebral. Compulsively readable.... an outpouring of admiration, that was me for hours after I finished the book. I had to call my sister to effuse. This review is thanks to her. 

"The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman's sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh..."

Picture this. England of the 1520s. As secret wildfires of a new religion are lit through Europe, Englishmen are burned for heresy. Queen Katherine has failed to bear Henry VIII a son. England is on the brink of a civil war. Enter Anne Boleyn, a sly serpent, a shrewd temptress. Henry, desperate in love, seeks to break free of the heirless marriage, to annul it. Scandal ensues; the Roman Church and most of Europe stand staunch against King Henry and his wish to marry Anne, to renounce the law and be his own master. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. He is vastly different from the nobility of the Tudor court, a man with the face of a killer, the only one who can realize the impossible. 

This is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. A biography of politics and the beginnings of the English reformation through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, lawyer and councillor to Henry VIII. Famously chronicled as ruthless beyond redemption, Cromwell slips into the role of a protagonist with surprising ease. In the eyes of those who surround him, he is a bully and a hack, but through his thoughts, his memories, we see a man capable of much warmth, passion and understanding. With a deliberate reassessment of one man's perspective, Mantel brings to our attention the lack of that human element in most dry historical fact. Cromwell's recasting as a hero may be a fantasy, perhaps, but it makes you wonder...

Because Mantel's Cromwell is a person, not a symbol. A loyal servant and a kind father, he is religious in his own way, not orthodox nor explicitly a Protestant. Above all, he is a man who has examined himself and has reconciled with what sin he has found within. Some of my favourite scenes star Cromwell and his wife, their quiet intimacy is very real. The strangest moments are when Cromwell feels surprised by the way he is perceived by others, and is then surprised by his own surprise. He frequently doubts his own beliefs. In his musings on religion and his thirst for knowledge you see an intellectual. His endless displays of cynicism, quick wit and bold plotting reveal the calculating genius that coaxed the Parliament into breaking away the Church of England.

The characters in Mantel's England are all retold from this quasi-villain's perspective. Cardinal Wolsey plays a huge part in building Thomas Cromwell and has hence the most crucial role in this redefining of history. Saint Thomas More, the philosopher and martyr, appears dangerously self-serving. Henry to him is intelligent but a lost lamb. Anne Boleyn, full of surprises, not to be trusted. Mary Boleyn, pretty and feisty, earns his sympathies. Katherine of Aragon he finds proud to the point of foolish. Princess Mary, frightfully but perhaps deceptively weak... the list is long and I'm afraid I am running out of adjectives.

The sheer scope of the book inspires wonder. Six hundred pages and never a dull moment. Mantel has garbed the story in intricate detail, converting research seamlessly into plot. No clunky dumps of information. It takes great narrative skill to flesh out the story like that. Stylistically, the book is odd. It has colons and hyphens where none are necessary and a noticeable dearth of quotation marks. For the most part of the book, Mantel refers to Cromwell not by name but as "he." Cute. Except, with a cast of some fifty characters and at least five Thomases, her copious use of the indefinite pronoun does get a little trying. Truly hen-peck-ish of me, I know, to call that a flaw. The story is narrated entirely in the present tense and it feels as if you have been placed right in the middle of the action. 

Prior knowledge of the Henrican reformation is not mandatory to read and enjoy the book - I had only vague recollections from an old obsession with the Tudor dynasty. That being said, an interest in politics, theology and history would certainly make the book more lastingly effective. If you know your history, by the way, you would know that Cromwell had anything but a happy ending. But in Wolf Hall, Mantel has given him just that. The book ends when he is at the peak of his career. So the one thing keeping me from diving for the sequel is the undeniable fact that there is trouble to come. I shall grant me and Cromwell a month more of happiness before taking on Book #2 - Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

"The world is not run from where he (Henry) thinks. Not from border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from the castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot."

A must read, if ever there was one. 

6 comments:

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Ah, this sounds good. I have wanted to read it but the politics side of it puts me off a little. This kind of book probably works better as a movie (for me).
Glad to see you are so excited about it. It's a wonderful thing when a book touches us in such a way.

Priya said...

Hi Delia! I know what you mean. This book would be great on screen. There is a recent BBC miniseries that comes highly recommended. Maybe that would be more to your liking. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Superb review of this one Priya.

I have heard so much about this book. As I am really into history and I tend to really like books of this sort I really need to read this sooner rather then later.

It also striking how folks never get tired of delving into the intricacies involved in the reign of Henry VIII.

Chandranath Patra said...

Six hundred pages and still such enthusiasm...that book must be really very interesting. This review centers on the representation of Thomas Cromwell. I would have delighted to read a little bit about how the author has established credibility for the character's description. Overall, this is an interesting writing.

Viktoria Berg said...

The BBC series is on Swedish television now, going straight into my recording machine. I had my doubts about this, people I talked to either loved it or loathed it. Guess I must make up my own mind. You have certainly made me keen to go find it! :-D

Priya said...

Brian, I would say all history is intricate and interesting but you are right. Henry VIII has certainly attracted a lot of scrutiny, even in popular fiction. Something about the scandal, I guess. I was a little surprised, in fact, to discover there are a lot of young-adult novels out there about Anne and Henry's 'tragic love story'...

Chandranath, thank you. The book really was a fast read in spite of the intimidating size. The review centres on Cromwell because the book does - it is, after all, a fictionalized biography. As to the question of credibility, I'm not sure I understand your point! It is evident from the detail that Mantel put years of research into the book. Of course, Cromwell was a real person and we have plenty of historical data about him, so it was perhaps not as difficult to make him credible as it was to make his goodness seem credible - and the latter I have already tried to describe in the review!

Viktoria - Why am I not surprised that this book earns extreme reactions! I have to say though, the series, as far as I know, is unanimously loved. I will be watching it, I hope, soon. :)

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