WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

Book Quote:

“The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh. The king – lord of generalities – must learn now to labor over detail, led on by intelligent greed. As his prudent father’s son, he knows the families of England and what they have. He has registered their holdings in his head, down to the last watercourse and copse. Now the church’s assets are to come under his control, he needs to know their worth. The law of who owns what – the law generally – has accreted a parasitic complexity: it is like a barnacled hull, a roof slimy with moss. But there are lawyers enough, and how much ability does it require, to scrape away as you are directed. Englishmen may be superstitious, they may be afraid of the future, they may not know what England is; but the skills of adding and subtraction are not scarce. Westminster has a thousand scratching pens, but Henry will need, he thinks, new men, new structure, new thinking. Meanwhile, he, Cromwell, puts his commissioners on the road. ‘Valor ecclesiasticus.’ I will do it in six months, he says. Such an exercise has never been attempted before, it is true, but he has already done much that that no one else ever dreamed of.”

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie (NOV 23, 2009)

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by English history, especially the period from the Wars of Roses to the English Reformation. Even the best of Hollywood cannot top this era for action, adventure, romance, intrigue and violence.

Please forgive the brief history lesson which follows, but Wolf Hall assumes a deep knowledge of English history that most people – except for those well schooled in English history – lack. I hope to be helpful in summarizing the background of this exceptional work of historical fiction.

The Wars of the Roses, were a series of dynastic civil wars between the rival houses of Lancaster, (the Tudors), and York, (the Plantagenets), for the throne of England. The Lancastrian symbol was the red rose – the Plantagenet’s, the white. The war ended with the victory of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, King Henry VII, who founded the House of Tudor. His marriage to Elizabeth Plantagenet, (the white rose), and the eldest daughter of King Edward IV, penultimate king of the house of York, cemented the joining of the two houses. The third child of their political union was called Henry, who was to become King Henry VIII. That’s the background information for the setting of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning novel, Wolf Hall.

The time is 16th century Tudor England, (1527 to 1535), under the reign of King Henry VIII, at the beginning of the English Reformation. The Reformation was brought about by a series of events initiated when the Church of England first broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. These events were, in part, associated with the wider process of the European Protestant Reformation, a religious and political movement which affected the practice of Christianity across most of Europe. Many factors contributed to the process: primarily the invention of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press – a device which would change the world.

The demand for books became huge as Europe began to come out of the medieval era into the Renaissance. This hunger for knowledge increased dramatically once the Printing Press was invented – knowledge and ideas that were not easily obtainable before, suddenly became accessible. As people became more prosperous and literate, those who could read Latin were able to read the Bible, and they began to rethink their faith in the Catholic Church. The Printing Press meant that people, like Martin Luther, could spread their word quickly and easily, resulting in the Reformation and other changes. By the year 1480 its impact was immediate among the literate classes. However, once the Bible was translated into English, it enabled printed materials to spread rapidly – people could no longer be kept in ignorance and darkness.

Before The Reformation only the clergy could own and interpret the Bible. It was illegal for laypeople to possess the Holy Book in many countries, including England. it was still forbidden to read a Bible if you weren’t a priest. The Church outlawed the printing of the Bible and certainly the sale of the Bible.

The Lollardy Movement in England began to grow. Lollardy was the political and religious movement of the Lollards from the mid-14th century to the English Reformation. The term Lollards refers to the followers of John Wycliffe, a prominent theologian who was dismissed from University of Oxford in 1381 for criticism of the traditional church, especially his doctrine on the Eucharist. Its demands were primarily for reform of Western Christianity. Lollards were persecuted in England as were the Jews and “false” converts in Spain during the Inquisition.

The above subjects are the heart of Wolf Hall‘s narrative.

I think the novel, including warts and flaws, is certainly worthy of the Booker Prize, although I have not read the short list. You might be disappointed if you are expecting the book to resemble the works of Philippa Gregory or Jean Plaidy, (and I am a huge fan of both writers), or to echo the themes of films like “Anne of a Thousand Days,” “A Man for All Seasons,” or the HBO Tudor mini series, (all terrific films). Wolf Hall is definitely NOT “historical fiction lite!”  From seemingly timeworn material, a fresh and finely wrought work has been written. It portrays an extraordinary portrait of a society in the throes of change, with Henry VIII at its helm and Thomas Cromwell as first mate….or perhaps, visa versa!! But make no mistake, this is not a novel of romance, nor obvious drama with great tension which builds toward an exciting climax.

Our protagonist is Thomas Cromwell, a man from extremely humble beginnings. The son of an abusive Putney blacksmith, Cromwell rises through life to become the chief minister of King Henry VIII. Intelligent and shrewd to begin with, he learned his street smarts after he ran away from home in his early adolescence, and survived by his wits alone. He spent years as a mercenary in France. Then he worked with bankers in Florence. He plied a trade for a time as a clothier, and then as a lawyer. Cromwell’s introduction to the life of the rich and powerful elite begins with his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is a compelling and commanding figure – an English statesman and Cardinal of the Catholic Church. His eventual fall from such heady heights is due to his inability to provide Henry VIII with a Church-sanctioned divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Ironically, Wolsey’s fall from grace causes Cromwells fortune to rise.

The novel is told entirely from Cromwell’s point of view. Nothing important occurs unless he is either a witness or otherwise made aware of the circumstances.

In the 1520s England is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by another civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his twenty year marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell realizes that Henry, would remain Catholic if the Pope would just give him what he wants, a dispensation to marry Anne. But the Pope and most of Europe oppose him. Cromwell knows that the King can only be led to the Reformation through his desire for Anne Boleyn.

In many Tudor history accounts, Cromwell is disparaged, but here the author gives him a human face. He is constantly busy arranging all things to please “His Majesty,” even willing to give his life to win the king’s favor. Frequently, however, he labors to suit himself and his own desire for reform. He is a family man, yes – but he is also secretive, a bully and a charmer, both idealist and opportunistic, tireless, astute in reading people, and a consummate ambitious politician. He is a reformer but not a zealot. Cromwell helps Henry VIII with “The King’s Great Matter” – to break the opposition and, ultimately, make Henry the head of the Church of England and husband of Anne Boleyn. It is through Cromwell’s eyes that the reader watches the Tudor world unfold.

Wolf Hall is a most complex, deftly written, original novel – but it is long – over 500 pages – and it is certainly not a fast read. This is a book, both vivid and real, which should be read slowly and savored. It doesn’t deal with Henry’s romantic inclinations and indulgences, glamorous fetes and progresses, etc. It doesn’t even touch on Anne Boleyn’s beheading. The main theme here is how to obtain power and wield it. There is little heroism or idealism here.

“Listening to a disgruntled earl pontificate about ‘ancient rights,’ Cromwell wonders how he can explain real life to this clueless nobleman. ‘The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined . . . not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of a bugle but by the click of the abacus.'”

Most surprising is Hilary Mantel’s revisionary take on such figures as Thomas Moore, usually viewed as a great scholar, Renaissance humanist, a violent opponent of the Reformation of Martin Luther, and a government official. For three years, toward the end of his life, he was Lord Chancellor. According to most accounts, Moore was a kind and sympathetic man, faithful to his family, his king and the Church. The author’s version of Moore, who was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, and canonized on May 19, 1935, by Pope Pius XI, is one of a man obsessed with his religion, who wears hair shirts, flagellates himself, makes fun of his wife, has a nasty temperament, and delights in torturing anyone suspected of Lollardy. Those imprisoned in London’s tower fear his competence with the use of the rack and other such devices. And he delights in seeing “heretics” burn at the stake.

Other characters brought to life on the pages, include: Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer.  Thomas Cranmer is a leader of the English Reformation who helps build a favorable case for Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, which results in the separation of the English Church from a union with the Holy See. Along with Thomas Cromwell, Cranmer supports the principle of Royal Supremacy, in which the king is considered sovereign over the Church within his realm. Those in secondary roles include Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn’s uncle; Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk and husband to King Henry’s sister Mary; Anne Boleyn, (who is not a prominent figure here – she is just a prop in a much larger story); Mary Boleyn, (“The Other Boleyn Girl”), the French ambassador, and many more people, famous or otherwise.

What really bothers me about the narrative is that the author uses the pronoun “he” much too frequently but fails to mention the subject first. Therefore I found myself reading a page or two before discovering who “he” is. This is really disconcerting and takes away from the smooth flow of the prose and storyline. Otherwise, the writing, in the present tense, is excellent and often witty.

Honestly, I have no idea why the title is Wolf Hall, which is the seat of the Seymore clan. The name only appears once or twice in the book and is never visited. Jane Seymour, daughter of “Wolf Hall,” was Henry VIII’s 3rd wife who finally bore the man a legitimate son. I could postulate on the symbolism of the title…but in the end, I just advise English history lovers – all historical fiction fans – to grab a copy of Wolf Hall. It is well worth the time it takes to read it.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 1,362 readers
PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Co. (October 13, 2009)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on  Hilary Mantel
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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November 23, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Man Booker Prize, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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