Hello my bookish friends,
The typical Bibliophile that I am, as soon as social distancing and lockdown began to start, my bookish mind went straight into TBR compilation mode to try and put together the reads I wanted to get through now that I had slightly more headspace to do it.
With the recent release of The Mirror and The Light, the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall was one of the books that went straight on the list.
Writing this review and looking back on it has perhaps made me rethink my initial grading of 4 stars and uplift it to 5/5. It really is a literary masterpiece and I can see now why it won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. Humour, despair, power, philosophy just drips from every single page.
Book: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 30th April 2009
Publisher: Harper Collins
Synopsis from Goodreads:
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odour of yesterday’s unrecollected sins.
The Tudors have always been my favourite period of British history. I love the drama, pageantry and wife-swapping nature of the whole dynasty. Mantel did a superb job of bringing this to life and making it jump right off the page. From the descriptions of food, to the stench of the Thames, every sense was catered for as she rebuilt her own idea of the lush and extravagant world of Henry VIII’s England. I kind of wish Austin Friars was still standing today just to glimpse Cromwell’s world physically with my own eyes. I understand that lots of description is a bit of a Goldilocks situation for most readers but for me, Mantel got this spot on!
He thinks, I remembered you, Thomas More, but you didn’t remember me. You never even saw me coming.
I have to admit, it took me a little while to get to grips with the narration. We see the story through the perspective of Cromwell who is referred to as ‘He’, but then sometimes I’d get a little lost as to which ‘he’ we were talking about because there seemed to be lots of ‘he-s’ walking round the palaces and streets of Tudor London that I didn’t really know which He was thinking or which he was speaking or whether it was Him narrating… you get my point?! Nevertheless, I quickly got into the rhythm of the writing style and what seemed like Thames mud at first rapidly became the clear prose of Cromwell’s narrative. It really enabled you to see the world through his eyes, almost video-game style. Thinking back upon it now, I can really appreciate how clever Mantel’s writing actually is.
Mercy comes in and says, a fever, it could be any fever, we don’t have to admit to the sweat…If we all stayed at home, London would come to a standstill.
When you’re in strange times like these, do you ever seem to focus on some things or interpret comments and thoughts in a particular way that you may not have done previously? It seemed so ironic that parts of Wolf Hall seemed to echo real life and poignantly link to Covid-19. There was an almost philosophical sense to the novel and one particular line metaphorically slapped me in the face:
We are always dying – I while I write, you while you read, and others while they listen or block their ears; they are all dying.
It was a real ‘The Power of Now’ moment, that whilst in my little Cromwellian hole I’d almost forgotten the passing of time going on and on. The book is littered with little sentiments like this; they’re not all doom and gloom like the one above, but they stick out in your brain and really make you think. It’s one of the things I admired most about the writing in Wolf Hall.
‘Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the jousts.’
‘We are young enough, he says, and next time it will be a boy. One day we will make a great marriage for her.’
The tone of this entire scene, upon the birth of Elizabeth, was just so melancholic – you could feel Henry’s despair through the quietness of his actions and words. I think it’s such a shame that Henry VIII will never have the hindsight or awareness to recognise the magnanimity of his daughter. I wonder how he would feel if he actually knew of her achievements and that she was one of the defining and longest standing rulers of our entire history. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but maybe he wouldn’t have written her off just because of her gender.
All in all, Mantel has created such a fantastic work of fiction. I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it. Don’t get me wrong, trying to keep up with what was going on was like running a marathon for my brain, but the story, characters and writing is just so encapsulating that I needed to drag myself back into the 21st century after closing the final page. I would highly recommend this to anyone who has even an ounce of interest in the Tudors or historical fiction. Bring Up The Bodies, is currently sitting on my shelf waiting to be picked up… but not until I’m finally ready and in the right headspace to train my mind into reading Cromwell-speak again!
Have you read Wolf Hall? Should I watch the follow-on TV series? What’s your favourite time period in history? As always, drop me a comment to chat!