Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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One fear creates a dereliction, the offense brings on a greater fear, and there comes a point where the fear is too great and the human spirit just gives up and a child wanders off numb and directionless and ends up following a crowd and watching a killing.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel takes a look at the reign of Henry VIII through Thomas Cromwell’s, a much reviled character from medieval England, eyes. It begins with a short segment showing Cromwell as a youth, running away from his abusive father after a beating that almost leaves him dead. With few options available, he heads to France and enlists as a soldier. The next time we see Cromwell he is in his early 40’s and has elevated his position in life. He’s a successful business man and incredibly intelligent. At some point he was recognized as such by Cardinal Wolsey and has become his trusted confidant and assistant. Despite his position with the Cardinal, Cromwell harbors deep misgivings about the Catholic church.

No matter his doubts about the church, Cromwell is a loyal friend to Wolsey and stands by his side, even when it is dangerous to do so as King Henry strips Wolsey of his title, home and possessions. With the Cardinal in disgrace, Cromwell winds up in the position as Henry’s new confidant. Surrounded by yes men, Henry finds it refreshing that Cromwell is willing to speak his mind, even if it goes against Henry’s own opinions.

Soon Cromwell works his way up to Master Secretary. He is able to work his behind the scenes magic and get Anne Boleyn instated as the new queen. He also uses the pope’s unwillingness to grant Henry an annulment from Catherine to his advantage, subtly convincing King Henry of the falseness of the Catholic church and nudging him to reform christianity in England. We end the book with Cromwell still in Henry’s good graces and things are looking up.

Most of what I know about English history I learned from HBO’s The Tudors. In that show, and I believe in most history books, Cromwell is painted as an evil schemer. Mantel turns this on its head, instead showing Cromwell as a steadfast friend to the Cardinal, despite his downfall, fighting on his behalf even though it could have meant the end of his own career. It shows him as a loving father and husband. And it shows him as a tolerant person, befriending in a way those whose views are opposed to his own rather than simply trying to ruin their lives as seemed to be the fashion at the time. Maybe Cromwell was an evil man, but more likely his reputation today is due to a case of  history being written by the victors. Perhaps taking a cue from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States where he imagines a history written by the defeated, Mantel takes this approach for Thomas Cromwell.

Although I enjoyed the book, I thought Mantel’s writing was pretty confusing. There were many times when I had no idea who was speaking since she uses ‘He’ for Cromwell consistently, but then goes ahead and does the same thing for other characters as well. “Which he!?” I often found myself wondering. It also got confusing at times keeping the characters straight (when you are confronted at the beginning of the book with a list of names, you know you’re in trouble). Luckily I had a bit of knowledge so was able to follow along well enough. But geez, all those Thomases! The English seemed to have been very unimaginative with their names! In the end, though, I was able to forgive these things since the story held my interest the whole time. I’m looking forward to reading her take on part two.

 

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