England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor.
Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.Amazon.co.uk
Wolf Hall was one of the first audio books I purchased… and it was – and remains – gorgeous! But I had listened to it some years ago. Back in 2010 to be precise, before this blog existed! And it is a novel I have cited on occasion on various other posts over the years which felt weird without a review to link it to. So that, plus the release of The Mirror and the Light tempted me to do something I almost never do: a re-read.
And it is a massive testament to the novel that it warranted and repaid that re-read!
From the opening pages the world of sixteenth century England leapt from the page! The grime and brutality of that exquisite opening scene as Cromwell cowers before his father’s boot is as vivid and gripping as anything I have read – ever!
So now get up.’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
Blood from the gash on his head – which was his father’s first effort – is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.
‘So now get up!’ Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next.
That stitching and twine and leather that fills the imagination!
And the next chapter juxtaposes that with richness and luxury of Wolsey’s chambers where the Cardinal stands before the tapestry of King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba – whose image recalls for Cromwell Anselma, a girl her knew in Antwerp. And the Cardinal is
dressed not in his everyday scarlet, but in blackish purple and fine white lace: like a humble bishop. His height impresses; his belly, which should in justice belong to a more sedentary man, is merely another princely aspect of his being, and on it, confidingly, he often rests a large, white, beringed hand.
These characters live and breathe as few characters do in books. They are exceptionally well crafted as Mantel grafts flesh on the historical bones, performs some alchemy to turn history into characterisation.
That alchemy comes from many many wonderful features of the novel. Cromwell’s unfailing expertise whether in the legal courtroom or the Royal Court, whether in business or in war could have been overbearing. If he were merely the character that More describes
‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,’ says Thomas More, ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’
he would not have the presence that he does. Because Mantel manages to balance this so well with a delicate sense of vulnerability and loss. Wolsey felt like a figure from another age in contrast and yet the relationship between the two was palpable and his loss heart breaking. In fact many characters in the Court felt like something from a different feudal age (I loved the description of Norfolk rattling when he walked because of all his relics) being left behind as Cromwell and his brethren strode into the future.
The minor characters – Cromwell’s extended household for example – were as vivid and lively as the statesmen – the Cromwells and Wolseys, Katherines and Henrys and the oh-so-many Thomases – often undercutting the “shifting, shadow-mesh of diplomatic possibilities” with simple practical knowledge such as knowing that a certain emerald ring was being crafted when the emerald shattered.
In fact, Liz Wykys, Cromwell’s wife, was a stand out character for me from the first moment we met her, greeting her travel worn husband returning from Yorkshire with
Lizzie is still up. When she hears the servants let him in, she comes out with his little dog under her arm, fighting and squealing.
‘Forget where you lived?’
‘You’re sweeter to look at than the cardinal,’ he says.
‘That’s the smallest compliment a woman ever received.’
‘And I’ve been working on it all the way from Yorkshire.’ He shakes his head. ‘Ah well!’
For all Cromwell’s wit and wisdom, experience and cunning, Liz served as a wonderful foil able to hold her own in conversation and in the reader’s imagination. Indeed, it is in Cromwell’s household that I found the heart of the novel. In his love for Liz and his children, his care and concern for the young men he adopts into his household – Rafe Sadler, Richard Williams, Christophe – was wonderful. The scents and tastes and sounds – the vividness of that household were exceptionally crafted, and the relationships between them were so tender, rendered often in a combination of naturalistic dialogue and Cromwell’s internal thoughts. One example from Anne, his daughter goes
‘May I choose my husband?’
‘Of course,’ he says; meaning, up to a point.
‘Then I choose Rafe.’
For a minute, for two minutes together, he feels his life might mend.
And Cromwell’s pain in the death of his wife and children is extraordinary – captured in simple brutal language without a hint of sentimentality and all the more tragic for that
He remembers the morning: the damp sheets, her damp forehead. Liz, he thinks, didn’t you fight? If I had seen your death coming, I would have taken him and beaten in his death’s head; I would have crucified him against the wall.
The political progress of the novel is, of course, familiar: we pick up Henry VIII’s reign as he – like a good Catholic – is seeking dispensation from the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that she had in fact consummated her first marriage with Henry’s brother Arthur. And we all know the story of his infatuation with Anne Boleyn which lies behind it. And Anne in this book is a crafty and cunning young woman, both mercurial and calculating.
The difficulty with such familiar historical matter is that it can rob it of tension – we know who survives and who falls to the plotting – and it can rob it of structure. For me, that first problem was not an issue in the least, but the second was a little. It felt as if Mantel may have been struggling to find the right place to end the novel: Wolsey’s downfall? The King’s marriage? Boleyn’s coronation? The decision to close with Thomas More’s execution for me was not a big enough moment: neither the friendship between More and Cromwell, nor the tensions between them quite warranted the narrative weight given to More’s death. It was, after all, just one in a long succession of them.
What I Liked
- The characterisation was exquisite at all levels within the book – a genuine masterclass in character building with not a word wasted or out of place. There are too many favourite characters in here: obviously Cromwell but also Wolsey, Liz Cromwell,
- The family at Austen Friars was wonderful and warm, loving despite their terrible losses and tragedies which genuinely moved me to tears, especially the deaths of Anne and Grace.
- The dialogue was nuanced, playful and utterly authentic – thankfully without any attempt to great faux Early Modern English dialect
- Mantel’s historical research was simultaneously incredibly deep but lightly worn, guiding the language and imagery and sensory details in a wonderfully delicate way.
- Mantel’s language was simply sublime throughout
What Could Have Been Different
- Structurally, the novel felt a little episodic at times, but then so is history! I felt that the second novel in the series, Bring Up The Bodies benefitted from a sharper narrative focus: the downfall of Anne Boleyn.
- Thomas More lacked the presence for me to really carry the final sections of the novel – he was neither heroic and likeable enough, nor beastly enough but a combination of both, which sums up us all at the end of the day, doesn’t it? His death carried pathos but not much weight for me.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 674 pages
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Date: 4th March 2010