‘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.”
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.’
How well do you know your British history? If you know anything more than ‘Henry VIII had a lot of wives’, then congratulations! You know more than I do. People have tried to teach me in the past, on numerous occasions but if you weren’t an ancient Egyptian that I could colour in, I was not interested. Particularly if you came at me with Tudor history.
So how did I ever come to read a historical novel based entirely in the Tudor period, focusing on a man who was previously completely unknown to me? The truth is I had to- it was one of the first books I had to read for my English course. I was dismayed when I saw it on the reading list because the Plantagenet and Tudor history is boring. Look how bored they all look in their portraits. Even Cromwell himself looks a trifle bored about the whole thing, and he was one of the richest guys around.
Laden as I was with such poor expectations, I was really pleasantly surprised by what I read. Mantel truly brings her characters to life, with a natural sympathy in her writing that made them all believable. Unformed as my opinion of Thomas Cromwell had been (I only knew him in a vague way as a kind of bloodless historical villain), Mantel’s imaginative account of his life and motives would have given me another way of looking at his character. As it is, Wolf Hall gave me a new way of looking at the Tudor period: through the eyes of a Tudor subject. This was great for me, because it succeeded where my history teachers had failed and I actually learned a little about the time period as it was told from a personal point of view (in a first person account from Cromwell, though some years are omitted for the sake of progress), rather than in a dry, factual way. That is not to say Wolf Hall isn’t factually accurate- Mantel did five years of research to avoid putting people in places they weren’t in real life, even on specific dates.
One element of the novel about which I remain undecided is the style of prose. I appreciate that no-one is going to read a modern novel written in Early Modern English and its somewhat ambiguous spelling and syntax, but Wolf Hall is written in modern, though plain, prose. I’m certainly not complaining, as it made a very long book (all 672 pages of it) much easier to read than it could have been, but I think that the direct speech within the novel was, perhaps, a bit too modern for the period in which it is set. Feel free to disagree though, the incongruence between language spoken and period setting (especially you, Anna Karenina) is a pet peeve of mine, and something I take far too seriously.
As an independent historical novel, Wolf Hall is perhaps not as exciting as I’ve made it out to be, as it focuses on Henry VIII’s Chancellor and Master or the Rolls, etc. rather than Henry being a randy, petulant and axe-happy git. However, if know anything about Cromwell or you wish you did but you can’t sit through history classes I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. It’s a long book on a rather dusty old subject but it is written with a fresher perspective on old facts and it managed to get me interested in history. Only a little bit though… OK, I bought the sequel.