I had very high hopes for this book. It was the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which is a list that provides me with incredibly good reading every single year. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and the second of those books (Bringing Up The Bodies) won the Man Booker prize this year. It’s also historical fiction, which I love. I was entirely ready to love this book.
Unfortunately, I just didn’t.
Wolf Hall is the first book in the ongoing Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell was a true historical figure, a close adviser to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII. Wolf Hall concentrates on the end of Cromwell’s time with Cardinal Wolsey and the beginning of his close relationship with Henry.
The Tudor period seems very popular in the last decade, from the Jonathan Rhys Meyers series, The Tudors to The Other Boleyn Girl. To me, it’s not nearly as interesting a time in England as the Victorian era, but that’s just personal preference. I think this is the first historical fiction I have read set in the 16th century, and I did learn a lot about the period and the history and about Henry VIII.
I usually start my book reviews with a brief synopsis, but I cannot do so with this book. And therein lies the problem (one of them) with the book. Things happen, for certain, but not along a traditional plot line with rising action, a climax, and a resolution. It seems to be more just a recording of things that happen over nearly a decade in these characters’ lives. No one event is given more weight, importance, or consequences than any other event. The book has the pace of real life, with the tragic and epic occurring just alongside the everyday and the insignificant. This makes it very realistic, but I think it does not make for good fiction. I couldn’t tell you a specific reason why Mantel started this story where she did and stopped it where she did. I can’t tell you what I was supposed to glean from this portion of Cromwell’s life. Since it is a trilogy, the lack of proper ending is understandable–the very last page leads directly into the next book in the series–but there is just no story arch in this book. Some of the most devastating events happen sporadically in the middle of the book, such as the deaths of some of Cromwell’s family members due to plague.
I just couldn’t get a handle on this story in terms of a recognizable plot.
The book covers a period in English history of religion and monarchy in extreme tension.
Brief history lesson, if you don’t remember your high school classes/that Simpsons episode: Henry VIII was married to Katherine, the Spanish princess. She gave birth to Princess Mary, but was not successful in producing a male heir. As she aged, Henry VIII became anxious about having someone to take over as King. At the same time, Anne Boleyn caught his eye as a possible mistress, but she basically teased him and bribed him until he found a way to annul his marriage to Katherine and marry her instead.
At the same time, the reformation of the Catholic church was spreading from Germany (much of it directly resulting from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses), and there were parties in England interested in reforming the church in their country. These two interests became united in one solution. The king was convinced to break with the church after the pope refused to grant him an annulment from Katherine. So what was kind of a personal thing (marriage) became a huge issue that influenced the religion of everyone in England (and the US if you want to argue causation) for several centuries. The Anglican church became the official church of England, with the Monarchy at its head. For several hundred years, Catholicism was outlawed (except for brief respites).
Okay, enough history. So this was a huge, very important thing in England all stemming from/hinging upon Henry’s desire for a male heir. It’s a really fascinating time in history, and Henry and Anne are a very interesting pair. It should make for a great book.
Unfortunately, the plot is just non-existent. The action has sort of bookends on either side of the reformation. At the beginning, Cardinal Wolsey is just beginning to fall into disfavor and to have his lands and wealth reclaimed by the crown. The action ends with the death of Sir Thomas More, who was I suppose the last holdout stopping the progress of the English Reformation at the time. Other than that, the action just seems to occur in order and have no significance attached to it.
The writing is not bad, but it is very difficult to follow. Each person has different names/titles, and often they are referred to as one and then the other. Examples include referring to Stephen Gardner as Stephen Gardner, as Gardner, as Bishop of Winchester, as Winchester, as Master Secretary, etc. This is all one guy, but she flits between referring to him as one thing, then another, then a third. Add to that, the lack of dialogue tags in most of the dialogue. All of Cromwell’s thoughts and quotes are identified by ‘he said’. If you’re lucky, she throws you a ‘he, Cromwell, said’. It’s very difficult to tell who is speaking and to whom. I would have to go back and reread paragraphs to decipher what was going on. What on earth is wrong with just saying ‘Cromwell said’ or ‘Cromwell thought’. Or ‘I said’/’I thought’. It’s like she didn’t want to commit to first person or third person, and decided instead to confuse the hell out of everyone. Just pick!
There are also a lot of characters, and the list in the front does include most of them, but not in a very helpful arrangement. Add to that the fact that it doesn’t list all of their titles, despite the fact that people are often referred to by their titles. There are six or seven dukes running around the novel, but sometimes speech is identified just by ‘the duke said’. It was really hard to follow.
So there is no plot and it is hard to read. There were only two redeeming features of this novel, in my opinion. One was the complexity of the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with so many complex and varied characters. A particular highlight is the mercurial king and his equally capricious Anne. Their relationship, their mannerisms, the way they affect everyone around them, it’s all very interesting to read and drawn out realistically. They were the highlight of the book for me.
The other saving grace of the work was how clear it was that Mantel had done her research. I learned a lot about the period and about London, and the book made the history of the time come alive more completely than any history text I’ve ever read. When you read about these things in history class, it seems so brief, concise, and altered. Binary, really. One minute, they were a Catholic country, and the next minute, they were Protestant. But this book shows just how long, drawn out, and completely hypocritical the whole thing was. One minute, Sir Thomas More is torturing reformists and people who had the gall to circulate the Bible in English (in England… just let that sink in for a minute, that that was a crime) and by the end of the book, More is being executed for treason/heresy. There are a lot of executions in the book, and almost all of them are for people following their own beliefs about religion, and not the ones that the government was (that day) shoving down their throats. All I can say is, in this environment, it’s no wonder the pilgrims were headed to the New World less than 100 years later. Being burned alive for saying the communion wafers/bread is not really the body of Christ is a bit extreme, yes?
So, this book was a disappointment. Add to that, the fact that it was really long (604 pages) and I was glad to be finished with it. I’m disappointed I didn’t like it more, because I thought perhaps I would read the second one. I don’t think I have the energy, unfortunately. If you’re really obsessed with the Tudor era, and have a lot of patience to decipher dialogue with no tags, then you might enjoy this. But expect it to take a while and feel incomplete at the end.
Also, if you’re curious (as I was), the Thomas Cromwell described in the book is distantly related to the Oliver Cromwell who took over England in the mid-17th century. Oliver was Thomas’ sister’s grandson. So he was Oliver’s great-uncle, I think. It’s kind of amazing to think of a family coming from absolute obscurity (no money or noble pedigree) and having one be chief adviser to the King, and then a relative be ‘Lord Protector’ and de facto dictator of that same country. And they say there is no upward movement in the British class system.