“It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.”
Author: Hilary Mantel
I’ve been making an effort recently to get more in touch with some modern literature – partly because I feel I shouldn’t get too stuck in the past, and partly because recent novels seem on the whole to be more easily readable than their older counterparts. Counterintuitively therefore I picked up Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s 650-page Booker Prize-winning epic about the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII (I’m led to believe the fall will follow in parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy).
Wolf Hall follows Cromwell on his journey from beaten blacksmith’s son to one of the most powerful men in the realm, chronicled through a number of historical events, focussing on the dissolution of Henry’s first marriage (to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon) and the installation of his new wife, Anne Boleyn, as Queen. The tale is wrought with the current of Henry’s battle with the Roman Catholic Church, and ends with (spoilers) the execution of Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor and perennial thorn-in-the-side. (To hear this story from the other side, watch 1966’s Best Picture winner, A Man for All Seasons, in which More is the hero and Cromwell a villain (yawn)). Through his wit, intelligence and intricate knowledge of the law, Cromwell rises through various posts to become the king’s most trusted adviser and the man to whom everyone turns to get things done. He overcomes his association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and finds himself intimately connected with the Howards and the Boleyns (because it probably seemed like a good idea at the time). By the end of the book he has risen to an unheralded superiority in the kingdom – but what goes up, must come down…
I won’t lie, it’s not an easy read. Particularly at the start the somewhat ambiguous nature of the dialogue and the fact that roughly 70% of the men are called Thomas makes it hard to get to grips with. The huge, ever-changing pool of characters doesn’t help, but (fortunately?) the book is long enough to give the reader ample opportunity to get used to proceedings.
Throughout the book, I gained respect and regard for Cromwell, and when I eventually get round to reading Bring Up the Bodies and the to-be-released finale it will be disappointing to read of his downfall. This is an curious experience for me, because I’ve never really been into historical fiction before, which has the caveat that whatever the action, the end result will be the same. I am however gaining a little insight into the genre, and it’s interesting to think (again, thinking of A Man for All Seasons) how the author of a work can spin history to favour one character or another. Not that I’m accusing Hilary Mantel of having any political motive, of course. I’m sure she’s not like that at all. It also has the additional bonus of teaching me a bit about history (taken with a large pinch of salt), and I like learning. More for me in future, I think.
My Rating: 8/10