Wolf Hall is a historical fiction reader’s feast. Henry the VIII’s story, though it has been told, is re-examined through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, one of his counselors. Who knew that a professional paper-pusher and merchant could be so fascinating?
Cromwell’s history made it unlikely that he would ever climb to such heights among the powerful. Born the son of an alcoholic blacksmith, Cromwell’s cleverness is his only advantage.
Then, through a relative, Cromwell is taken into Cardinal Wolsey’s household. Wolsey recognizes the diamond in the rough and Cromwell becomes his right-hand man. It is a life-or-death dance that Cromwell and Wolsey play with King Henry, as the king demands a new wife. (the Cardinal speaks) “Tell me why you are scowling in that way.” (Cromwell) “The people up there say they are going to kill me.” “Really?” the cardinal says. He face says, I am astonished and disappointed. “And will they kill you? Or what do you think?” pg 31, ebook.
Meanwhile, those around the king never let Cromwell forget his humble beginnings for a moment. The duke of Norfolk scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, “Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.” Thomas waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. He is a person, he is a presence. He knows how to edge blackly into a room so that you don’t see him; but perhaps those days are over.” pg 154, ebook.
The fact that Cromwell survives Wolsey’s disgrace is a miracle. As he builds his connections and power, the reader can only gape in amazement. “Chapuys greet him without a smile. “Well, you have succeeded where the cardinal failed, Henry has what he wants at last. I say to my master, who is capable of looking at these things impartially, it is a pity from Henry’s point of view that he did not take up Cromwell years ago. His affairs would have gone on much better.” pg 415.
The BBC made a fantastic book-to-screen version of this story. Many of my favorite moments from the book were taken exactly from these pages. I highly recommend it too.
My only complaint about this novel is that the style is ambiguous. Instead of labeling who is speaking, Mantel often just says “he”.
The reader must stay on her toes to keep up with the machinations of the characters, because Mantel doesn’t bother to explain it or their reasoning. I expect, that in some ways, it is very much like how these historic figures lived their lives. Never quite knowing who to trust or how the wind was blowing.
Yes, now we know what happened, who went to the block and who didn’t, but this story nearly succeeds in making the reader forget the ending. Wolf Hall throws you right into confusion of Henry the VIII’s reign. And, it was a Wolf Hall indeed.
Thanks for reading!