Another book I’m honestly not quite sure how I feel about. I know that it’s the sort of book I should’ve eaten up with a spoon — one of my favourite historical eras, told from the perspective of a “side character” with a fascinating story of his own — and yet, somehow, it just didn’t take for me.
Wolf Hall tells the story of Henry VIII from the viewpoint of one of his most trusted advisers, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell begins the story as the much-abused son of a Putney blacksmith who leaves home to bounce around the Continent for a while before returning and somehow landing a position with the then-triumphant Cardinal Wolsey. After the prologue section showing Cromwell’s early life, Mantel dives right in to the sequence of events that will eventually lead to the English Reformation. King Henry VIII is dissatisfied — with his position on the world stage, with his inability to get an heir, with his once-lovely but now dour and dumpy Spanish wife. He sets Wolsey to fixing all of his problems, as Wolsey has done pretty much since the start of Henry’s reign. Attached to Wolsey’s household, Cromwell’s fortunes also rise — but as Wolsey starts to fall, when he can’t accomplish Henry’s wishes fast enough (and when he makes an enemy out of Lady Anne Boleyn), Cromwell finds himself in a difficult situation, not wanting to betray the man to whom he owes so much, but not wanting to crash and burn, either. Watching Cromwell nimbly navigate the turbulent waters of political intrigue — particularly when the Boleyns start getting involved — is most of the excitement in this book.
But what I like best about it is instead its depiction of life in London as a member of the middle class during Henry’s reign, since so many books focus only on the royal court (excusable, since what a court it was, but still). As Cromwell bounces back and forth between the two worlds, we get to see the contrast. We also watch Cromwell build a home and a family, things that are more important to him than he generally lets on, cultivating the public image of a hardened and devious Machiavel. But he cherishes his home life, and the losses he suffers all too frequently affect him deeply. The economy and status marks of Londoners are wonderful to observe as well — how they aped the court and gossipped about them, but frequently held a different moral standard. Cromwell there stands in stark contrast to Thomas More, another up-jumped adviser to the king, whose home life is supposed to be a model of ideal Christian lifestyle, with a reality that seems almost unendurably cruel.
So, in that regard, it was a compelling novel. But there were some things that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not a fan of historical fiction told in the present tense. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of present-tense fiction in most instances, but for some reason, in historicals, it bothers me more significantly. It didn’t help that Mantel’s pronouns had unspecific antecedents often enough to be a major distraction. So often she would jump from talking about one character to offering Cromwell’s viewpoint or experience, but without any transition — and if both characters were “he”s, as was typically the case, it was jarring and made the narrative a little disjointed.
Hall also includes a lot of historical rumours that were either known to be completely unfounded in their own time or else were inventions of later centuries looking back on the Tudor era. It’s hard to tell whether Hall means this to be indicative of the rumour mill of 16th-century England — or whether it’s a flaw in her own historical knowledge, if she’s buying into the hype without stripping away the falsities. I honestly don’t know which is the case, and that’s the problem. I want to believe it’s the former, that she’s presenting a semi-satirical commentary on the transmission of information — but since I can’t tell for sure if that’s what she’s doing, then I have to consider it a flaw in the writing either way.
I am also just, personally, a big fan of Anne Boleyn. And of Catherine of Aragon. (The two opinions are not as necessarily mutually exclusive as you might imagine). This book isn’t a fan of either. Anne is a complete shrew, Catherine a dullard. None of the Boleyns come off well, really — brother George is a fop, father Thomas is a pompous grasper, and Uncle Norfolk has a hot temper and a viciously inventive vocabulary (he’s hilarious, though, and he may be my favourite character for that alone). Sister Mary fares a little better, more a pawn than an agent and at the mercy of her sister and father, but she still displays a pragmatic streak that Mantel paints in a less-than-flattering light. Queen Catherine appears infrequently and never to good effect, and Princess Mary is generally described as weak both of body and mind — hugely unfair to them both, since they were both pretty incredible women, whatever their faults. Nor is Wolf Hall a fan of Thomas More, though I’m okay with that, having always thought him a bit too much of a pompous stick. And it’s far too forgiving of Henry, who I, frankly, view as the villain in this entire story. That, at least, I can understand, from Cromwell’s point of view — though you would think that a man as keen and calculating as Cromwell wouldn’t be quite so mentally permissive of his king’s really obvious foibles. Mantel makes some gestures in that direction, with Cromwell musing on how “you choose your prince” and then stick with him, but ultimately, there’s still just a little too much adoring glitter thrown on a man I’ve always seen as self-deceptive to the point of total immorality. I think, with all of the above characters, Mantel falls into the same trap: in attempting to flesh out Cromwell, she ends up flattening everyone else.
On the whole, this book definitely has some great stuff in it, and I love getting to see the story from a new viewpoint. I think the technical merit of the work leaves a lot to be desired, however. I understand that she’s continuing this as a series (presumably through Cromwell’s fall and death), and I don’t know whether or not I’ll pick up the others.