Sometimes, when you read a novel, you become acutely aware of huge gaps in your knowledge. Off the top of my head, I can easily remember a few times. Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses is definitely one where I really felt I needed something to even get the novel at all. Tolstoy’s War and Peace also made me wish I had used some time studying Napoleon, his war on Russia and more. I still got and loved that one though but my reading experience would have been enhanced by a deeper knowledge of this period in history. The same with this novel. This is an amazing novel. There’s no doubt about it. But I didn’t get as much from it as I had hoped. I know something of English history, I know something about Henry VIII and Cromwell and all the wives because this period has always fascinated me. But I don’t know a lot. In fact, I didn’t know there was both an Oliver Cromwell and a Thomas Cromwell. Hilary Mantel knows. She knows this and lots lots more. She spent years researching this and she knows it all. And she doesn’t talk down to anybody. She expects something from her reader. Sadly, I can’t quite live up to this.
This is the story of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to fame in Henry VII’s court. It details his time with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (whom I had never heard of before) and how he managed to not be drawn down with the Cardinal when he lost the King’s favor. Cromwell was also responsible for getting the King divorced from his queen, Catherine of Aragon, and ensured his marriage to Anne of Boleyn.
Not only does this book has all the political things going on at the time – with the battle against the Vatican to try to the Pope grant the King a divorce the most interesting – it also details Cromwell’s personal life. From his childhood beatings at the hands of his father to the loss of parts of his family as well as his relationships with men like Thomas More.
But it also shows what life was in those days. And not only in the ruling classes. Cromwell has dealings with people from all classes for various reasons. In some instances, only in relation to their subsequent execution. And allow me to say, these executions back then were nasty business. Not only did they burn people frequently for various reasons (and when you’re being burned, you are apparently hoping that it’s not a windy day because the wind blows the flames away from you), they also cut people to pieces while still alive as well as other horrendous things – naturally after a decent round of torture to make sure they had the right culprit.
My only complaint is that I didn’t connect emotionally with any of the characters. Even though Cromwell suffers some tragic losses, I didn’t really feel the connection. I didn’t feel his pain. I connected the most emotionally with the victims of several of the execution scenes that were so unpleasant to read. I know that Mantel has to invent everything about Cromwell’s personal life and I do think she solves it splendidly all in all – this is just a minor quibble.
So not only does it tell Mantel’s version of Cromwell’s life as well as life in England from 1500 to 1535, in particular life at Henry VIII’s court, it’s also an extremely well-written historical fiction novel that demands some historical knowledge from it’s reader. You can’t pick it up as you go. And that’s not a bad thing. However, I do recommend familiarizing yourself with this period of British history before picking this book up.
- Title: Wolf Hall
- Author: Hilary Mantel
- Publisher: Fourth Estate
- Year: 2009
- Pages: 652 pages
- Stars: 4 out of 5 stars
- Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize for fiction
NB: I read this book in 2011 – I’m just a bit late in writing the review.