Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2009
Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.
Borrowed from my local library.
This book will be on my top 10 list for 2010. It may even be my favorite book of the year. Wait, you ask, it is only the middle of January, how can you say that? I say that because Mantel has created a world so full and rich that I didn’t want to leave it. She has given me a place as vivid as the streets of my own city, as lively as my favorite café. She has introduced me to characters that I want to talk to, that I wish to comfort and, sometimes, to scream at.
Of course, that is impossible, we are centuries and worlds apart. After all, this is fiction. Immersed in the history of early 16th century Britain, Mantel tells the story of one man, Thomas Cromwell. With roots in the lower class, Cromwell, the son of a brewer and blacksmith, rises to become a confidant to Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. Eventually Cromwell becomes the King’s chief minister and the enemy of Thomas More, staunch supporter of the Pope. Henry, afraid of dying without a legitimate heir, wishes to annul his first marriage and marry another. There are multiple threads of politics, sex and double-dealing and, of course, the King’s battle with the Catholic Church. But this book is so much more than another fictionalized account of that time in history.
Wolf Hall is dense, dark and rich in a way that made me slow down my reading and savor every page. What I really want to do here is quote many passages that leaped out at me but I will limit myself to a few.
An introduction to young Thomas Cromwell:
He is surprised. Are there people in the world who are not cruel to their children? For the first time the weight in his chest shifts a little; he thinks, there could be other places, better. He talks; he tells them about Bella, and they look sorry, and they don’t say anything stupid like, you can get another dog. He tells them about the Pegasus, and about his father’s brewhouse and how Walter gets fined for bad beer at least twice a year. He tells them about how he gets fines for stealing wood, cutting down other peoples trees, and about the too-many sheep he runs on the commons…from page 12.
After he loses his wife to fever:
For a month he is at home: he reads. He reads his Testament, but he knows what it says. he reads Petrarch, whom he loves, reads how he defied the doctors: when they had given him up to fever he lived still, and when they came back in the morning, he was sitting up writing. The poet never trusted any doctor after that; but Liz left him too fast for physician’s advice, good or bad, or for the apothecary with his cassia, his galingale, his wormwood, and his printed cards with prayers on. From page 86
On viewing a carpet at Thomas More’s house:
It’s beautiful, he says, not wanting to spoil his pleasure. But next time, he thinks, take me with you. His hand skims the surface, rich and soft. The flaw in the weave hardly matters. A turkey carpet is not an oath. There are some people in the world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person. He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight. Leases, writs, statutes, all are written to be read, and each person reads them by the light of self-interest. More says, “What do you think, gentlemen? Walk on it, or hang it on the wall?”
“Walk on it.”
“Thomas, your luxurious tastes!” And they laugh. You would think they were friends. From pages 187/188.
Cromwell observing King Henry:
You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing. Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more. Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade. Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move. If he had been called to a lower station in live, he could have been a traveling player, and leader of his troupe. From page 357
Mantel places Cromwell in the third person and some readers find this difficult. It did not really bother me. I rather enjoy the rhythm of shifting from Cromwell’s thoughts to observing him from some close vantage point. The only part I found awkward was trying to keep track of the different Royal lineages, and Mantel, or her editors, have graciously placed a list of characters and the Tudor and Yorkist family trees at the front of the book.
I find it hard to say more about Wolf Hall. I really love Mantel’s style, her intelligence, and her trust in my abilities as a reader. I will read this book again.
Did I miss yours?