Monday, November 30, 2009
In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII's court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king's favor and ascend to the heights of political power.
England in the 1520's is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king's freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.
Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
In inimitable style, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. With a vast array of characters, overflowing with incident, the novel re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death.
I was curious about this book, especially since it won the Booker Prize and was getting a lot of buzz in the literary world. I can't say I'm an expert on Henry VIII and his great matter, but I know enough about it, having read a few books that go over the whole thing, The Autobiography of King Henry VIII by Margaret George in particular, which I adored. Plus, I am a fan of the miniseries The Tudors on TV, (at least for the first two seasons), though it is rife with innacuracies. I chose to listen to this book on audio, even though I was sent a copy of the hardcover by the publisher. I'm glad I did, I really enjoyed listening to it and the actor, Simon Slater, did a great job narrating. He was a master at all the various characters and their accents, I found it easy to discern who was speaking. Cromwell's voice was always easy to point out and identify with, but he did an exceptional job with Thomas More, Cranmer and Cardinal Wolsey's voices as well.
Wolf Hall is the story of the rise of a man, Thomas Cromwell, who comes from nothing and rises to nearly the highest office in England, becoming King Henry VIII's right hand man. Thomas, the son of a brutal blacksmith in Putney leaves home as a young teenager after being beaten by his father. He makes his way in the world at various things, learning the wool trade, learning to fight as a mercenary in the French army, studying in Italy, he is a renaissance man, though no one will admit it. To all the nobles and peers he will always be a blacksmith's son. Renown for his great memory and ability at organization he is taken on by Cardinal Wolsey and his household. Here he learns his true calling as a master of politics with the unique point of view of seeing how Wolsey ran the kingdom for Henry VIII. Cromwell meets numerous dignitaries, ambassadors and courtiers, honing his talent for discretion and diplomacy. Through it all, Cromwell stands by the Cardinal, even when it's clear the Cardinal is out of favor with the king. But, Cromwell walks a fine line and places himself in a position to be able to remain at Court and be "useful" after Wolsey leaves the court and eventually dies. Cromwell's reputation and talent becomes known to the King who takes him on as one of his courtiers, eventually leading up to becoming his secretary, a great and important job. Cromwell becomes rich under the king and is able to provide for his family and the various wards he looks after. In my mind, the basic gist of the story is how can it be that a man from nothing can rise to the power that he did in Henry's court? It seems inconceivable, but it truly happened.
Now, there's much more to this book than just Cromwell's rise in power. We are sympathetic to Cromwell from the first. By the way, he is always referred to as "he," the pronoun is always used in regard to Cromwell, as if he is some kind of deity. This was a bit disconcerting at first, but I got used to it, I imagine it was more bothersome in print. Cromwell is a family man, taking care of his entire household and we feel for him many times, first when his wife dies, and then his daughters and sisters. But, all the while, he's never maudlin, often matter of fact, a realist with a dry way of looking at life. He keeps moving on and upward, though he is likable as his power increases, you don't get the feeling that he is a money grabbing greedy opportunist like all the other courtiers and advisors surrounding Henry, particularly the Boleyns.
Often I appreciated the dry wit that came out in his thoughts and phrasing, especially in regard to Thomas More. More comes across as a self righteous prig, with Cromwell as the sympathetic hero, a realist, a survivor, a man with common sense. The book ends, much to my disappointment, with the demise of Thomas More, who refuses to give in and accept the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn and all that goes with it. I've heard that Ms. Mantel wrote this book to counteract A Man for All Seasons which portrays More as somewhat of a saint. She does a good job at undoing that image of More here. Cromwell does not come across as a saint either, he is a bit of an opportunist, though he has a way about him that is charming and self-deprecating. I really liked him, he was human, kind and caring, not the monster he is so often portrayed as in history books and movies.
I guess one of my main gripes about this book is that for most of it, we are with Cromwell, and his rise in power and wealth. It's all about Cromwell, and then in the last part of the book, suddenly it all shifts to More! Once again, Thomas More becomes the center of attention - even here in Cromwell's story! It's all about More, More, More! I found it unfair that we are reading all about likable Cromwell and the whole long book ends with the death of snarky Thomas More, as if he is the center of the universe. I was disappointed that the story shifted to him and his last days in the Tower with Cromwell still trying to be good and noble, giving More a chance to change his mind (which he refuses to do.) Yet no matter what Cromwell may have tried to do, More came off as the good one, Cromwell, the lowly born thug. Still, I enjoyed More's character - his sneariness towards Cromwell, and Cromwell's inner thoughts as well towards More. Here, Cromwell's tutelage under Wolsey comes in handy. Never show your emotions, never let anyone think you are afraid of them. As Wolsey said as he was being arrested, (to paraphrase) "Look at my face, I am not afraid of any man!" You could say the same of Cromwell. Stone faced, rarely showing his true thoughts, he'd just take what was thrown at him and make some pithy or self deprecating remark about it. One particular rumination of Cromwell's on More that I was fond of (and he had many!) that made me chuckle was in regard to More's tendency for lookng shabby. Cromwell wonders why More couldn't seem to get himself a good shave, "Can't he make time, shorten his whipping schedule?" Cromwell was no fan of More's propensity for wearing hair shirts or More's nightly self whippings.
There were many great lines in the book that made me laugh out loud, the Duke of Norfolk had some zingers, "Mary?" (referring to the Princess of Wales) "that talking shrimp?" Many, many little gems throughout this book, too many to list, but Cromwell's observations of everyone were always right on the money, he saw through everyone, nothing escaped him. I enjoyed his banter with Mary Boleyn and Jane Rochford and his thoughts on Mark Smeaton as well. He wasn't one to gossip, unless it would serve a purpose. He was neat and orderly and had a mind and memory like a trap.
Well, enough about the wonders of Thomas Cromwell, you can read the book and read about them for yourself. I enjoyed this book very much, but I can't say it deserves all the accolades and attention it has gotten. Still, it is unique that it paints Cromwell as a sympathetic figure and makes him likable, and for that the book is a worthwhile read, especially if you are are into this time period. I hear the author is writing a sequel, the continuing story of Cromwell in Henry's court, I will definitely read it, though after learning to appreciate Cromwell, I'll hate to read about what happens to him eventually. :(
One last note about the title. Why did she name it Wolf Hall? Yes, yes, I know it's the name of the Seymour family estate, and we all know that Henry drops Anne Boleyn for Jane Seymour, but why name the book Wolf Hall based on the last paragraph of this book? Am I missing something?