Last month, I finished making my slow way through the beastie, award-winning, historical-fiction, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. First published eleven years ago, in 2009, this has sadly sat on my to-be-read shelf, gathering dust, for almost as long, so it was amazing to finally get to it! Since then Mantel has released Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light, making this the first book in a trilogy about Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel takes us back to the England of the 1520s, a place of tension, danger, death and instability, because King Henry VIII has a big problem. He finds himself, after 20 years of marriage to Katherine of Aragon, still without a male heir. Therefore Henry wishes to annul his first marriage to marry his new, younger love, Anne Boleyn. But the pope and most of Europe opposes him. It is such a tricky conundrum, it even shockingly brings down Henry’s loyal and powerful favourite, Cardinal Wolsey.
Into this impasse steps Wolsey’s protégé, Thomas Cromwell: a successful trader and lawyer, to whose analytical, business mind there is no problem that can’t be fixed. I think Mantel has skilfully been able to deliver a balanced and believable portrayal of Cromwell as a man, not just a villain, with shades of light and dark to his character. He is a charmer and a bully. He is an idealist and opportunist. He is implacably ambitious and a generous family man. Surprisingly I found myself liking him, even if I hated many of his actions!
What I did struggle with though was Mantel’s confusing choice to write the narration in third person, from the point-of-view of Cromwell, in mostly present tense, but with past tense mixed in for flashbacks and Cromwell’s streams of consciousness, which can pop up at any moment. Once you get your head around that when Mantel uses ‘he’ and ‘I’ she generally means Cromwell then you can start to get on better. While not easy to read, it is quite an effective style for making the reader literally feel inside Cromwell’s mind.
Thankfully, I was able to get past the bemusing writing style the further I got into the drama and juicier details of the tale. As we get to see first hand the astronomic ascendency of Anne Boleyn and her family, which in turn leads to the dramatic fall of their enemies: Queen Katherine, Cardinal Wolsey, Princess Mary and Sir Thomas Moore, because lurking behind it all, pulling strings and making deals is Thomas Cromwell. All of which is all the more juicy and gripping for the fact we know from history that the tables will soon be turned!
So overall, Wolf Hall, was a slow and long read for me, but I genuinely did enjoy the characterisation, time period and storytelling. Having finished it, I feel quite proud and can understand how it can so starkly divide the opinions of readers. I am unsure whether I will read the rest of the trilogy – I think my brain needs a rest before I can decide! Good read.
I’d love to hear your thoughts: Have you read this? Would you like to? Have you read more from the trilogy?