Review by: Jan Maher, Castledermot Library
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Adult fiction, extensively based on historical accounts
England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor.
Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.
From one of our finest living writers, Wolf Hall is that very rare thing: a truly great English novel, one that explores the intersection of individual psychology and wider politics. With a vast array of characters, and richly overflowing with incident, it peels back history to show us Tudor England as a half-made society, moulding itself with great passion and suffering and courage.
By now, we’re starting to get used to this whole new way of life and hopefully – despite the difficulties and stresses, especially if we’re also looking after lively children – beginning to appreciate the positives. One of which might be the opportunity to catch up on those books you might have intended to read, but never had the time, those you’ve started but never finished, or maybe even those you have already read but wish to revisit. A book that may fit the bill could be Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
The first of a trilogy about Henry Vlll’s influential government minister and all-round fixer, Thomas Cromwell, it brings to life one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance whom most of us had previously known little about. My own fairly sparse knowledge of Cromwell had been basically informed by a portrait of him by Hans Holbein, which shows a particularly unattractive character at the height of his power: a man with little piggy eyes, cruel mouth, and a very shifty expression. If I were to meet that man, I would not be inclined to get to know him further!
Yet from the moment you start reading you find yourself gripped by Mantel’s wonderful writing and her fascinating characterisation. From our first meeting with Cromwell as a boy, kicked half to death by his brutal blacksmith father on the cobblestones of dirt-poor Putney in 1500, through the trajectory of his rise to the most powerful man in England, we want to learn more of this prodigiously intelligent, but contradictory man.
All of this takes place against a brilliant tapestry of characters with whom we may be more familiar. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Moore and Anne Boleyn all feature, with the overarching figure of Henry VIII himself towering above them all.
Mantel’s credentials as a writer of historical fiction are impeccable, using as much source material as possible, yet using her writing skills to build her characters. She is also wonderful with dialogue and description. We feel we really know these people and want to find out more about them.
I recently reread both this and the follow up, Bring up the Bodies – which deals with the spectacular downfall of Ann Boleyn, in preparation for the recently published final book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, and was well rewarded for having done so. What better way to spend our time, now we have some!
If you don’t already have a copy, Wolf Hall is available to borrow as both an ebook and audiobook from Bolinda Borrowbox, and you can also request it online through your library account as a printed copy, which will be delivered to your local library once the current restrictions are over. And if you enjoy it as much as I did, the other two parts of the trilogy are also available on Borrowbox.
However you access your books, happy reading and keep healthy!