Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, are well known facts of history. Most people even know the names of some of the other people who played key roles in this matter. What Hilary Mantel has done in ‘Wolf Hall’ is to breathe life into these people. To flesh out the brief, dusty biographies of history into living, breathing people. People we can love or hate, laugh with or laugh at, care for or hope for their downfall.
At the centre of it all is Thomas Cromwell. A man of humble origins, a traveller in his youth, a lawyer, friend of archbishops and, ultimately, confidant of the king. Ms Mantel has managed to get into the character of Cromwell, teasing out possible motives for his actions, deftly drawing the psychology of a man and of an age. History depicts Cromwell as a ruthless self-seeker, and there are aspects of that in this book, yet Ms Mantel digs deeper – a loyal friend, a family man, a loving husband and father, a cultured man who knew many languages, loved art and poetry, loved to hunt with his falcons, was keen to find and train young minds. This bringing to life of Cromwell, and many other characters, makes ‘Wolf Hall’ compelling reading, even though we already know the outcome of the story. Added to this is the in-depth depiction of life at court – the ladies in waiting, the kings gentlemen, intrigue and indulgence, banquets and religious disagreement, hunting and jousting – the list is endless. Along with the background of Cromwell this gives a fascinating insight into life in Tudor times for both rich and poor.
‘Wolf Hall’ is an historical novel with an emphasis on history, both in the plot and the descriptions. Ms Mantel has taken a story we all know and masterfully made it into something new, which any lover of history will enjoy. With one caveat. I enjoyed reading this book, but for some the style may be a little strange. Cromwell is always referred to as ‘he’, which can be confusing at times; so much so that, on occasion, the author resorts to writing ‘he, Cromwell, said…’. For myself, this is not a problem as the style is quite unique and gives a feeling of being in another time with another turn of phrase, another way of saying and doing things. For those who initially find this style difficult to follow I would ask you to persevere, a few pages in and you will cease to notice this most of the time as you become gripped by the story.
‘Wolf Hall’ is a fascinating read, and a great introduction to Thomas Cromwell. I am very much looking forward to following his story through Anne Boleyn’s time as Henry’s wife, and on to yet another queen in Ms Mantel’s sequel, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’.
Hilary Mantel’s website can be found here
Wolf Hall can be found on Amazon
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