‘The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields. The huntsmen call in the dogs.’ – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

December 21, 2009 at 6:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Historical fiction)

What a feat Hilary Mantel has pulled off with her Man Booker Prize winning novel! In Wolf Hall the author conjures up a world so compelling that once you’re drawn in, it is hard to get out. And you may want to get out at times, because this is a world that is at once dazzling and dangerous, fascinating and forbidding, lavish and cruel – very cruel indeed.

England, early 1500’s. We are at the court of King Henry VIII. The king is trying to rid himself of his current wife Katherine of Aragon, so that he may marry his current love, Anne Boleyn, who might possibly provide him with the male heir he desires. The principal character in this drama is Thomas Cromwell. When we first meet him, he is being beaten mercilessly by his lout of a father. Not to worry – Thomas can take it – and then some. It’s partly his ability to roll with the punches, and even more importantly, to see  them coming, that facilitates his rise at court. He begins in the service of the all-powerful Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey provides the entrée Thomas needs. From there his star continues to ascend.

Cromwell’s home life is as interesting as his life at court. His household is a cacophonous mixture of immediate family, extended family, old retainers and new proteges. As if that were not enough, he is daily besieged by those seeking some kind of preferment:

‘There are artists looking for a subject. There are solemn Dutch scholars with  books under their arms, and Lubeck merchants unwinding at length solemn Germanic jokes; there are musicians in transit tuning up strange instruments, and noisy conclaves of agents for the Italian banks; there are alchemists offering recipes and astrologers offering favorable fates, and lonely Polish fur traders who’ve wandered by to see if someone speaks their langauge; there are printers, engravers, translators and cipherers; and poets, garden designers, cabalists and geometricians.

Cromwell lives in a place called Austin Friars, a little world unto itself. It tries to be a bastion of comfort set against the outside world, yet it is nonetheless stalked by death. This was true of every dwelling place, high or low, in that perilous time. Life hung  by the slimmest of threads and was easily and arbitrarily cut.

As I was nearing the end of Wolf Hall, a new biography of Thomas Cromwell came to my attention. I was initially pleased at this confluence of subject matter, but upon reading author Robert Hutchinson’s introduction,  my pleasure changed to dismay. The author makes his subject out to be the most dreadful man imaginable. No, no, I wanted to cry out, not so! He was a complicated person, made up of diverse elements. True he could be steely and ruthless, but the times called  for it. Moreover, he could also be extremely compassionate and generous. So – which is the revisionist portrait? At  this point I could not say. I only know that the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall leaped off the page and  became someone I knew and utterly believed to be real. Have I been seduced by an artful fiction? Perhaps…

Much of the sheer wonder of this novel comes from Hilary Mantel’s marvelous writing. Here she describes a world gone suddenly quiet:

‘He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

At other times, a riotous celebration – in this case, the Feast of Epiphany:

‘The night is loud with the noise of bone rattles, and alive with the flames of torches. A troop of  hobby horses clatter past them, singing, and a party of men wearing antlers, with bells at their heels. As they near home a boy dressed as an orange rolls past, with his friend, a lemon.

Often I hear of people giving thumbs down to a work of fiction because in the course of their reading, they had not encountered a single likeable character.  Wolf Hall presents a crowded canvas; its characters act in ways that can variously be described as gracious, gallant, playful, repugnant, cruel. For the most part, no one person behaves the same way all the time. To be blunt, I had the hardest time with the burning of heretics. Incredibly, even more horrific ways of torturing and killing people – on behalf of church and state! – had been devised. I decline to describe them here; so, for the most part, does Mantel. The incidents to which I refer are not all that frequent, but when they do happen, you want to turn away. It made me angry, this unmitigated cruelty, sanctioned cruelty, done in the name of religion. Hilary Mantel is economical, yet pitiless, when she writes of it:

‘At Smithfield Frith is being shoveled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.

While this horror is being brought to fruition, King Henry is out riding on a favorite mount.

I know that such things happened in that time and  place. All the same, at that moment I thoroughly despised Henry, his henchman, his hangers-on – the lot of them! I despised them all. And that includes – most definitely! – that arch manipulator, that ruthless little schemer, Anne Boleyn.

Well. Time to pull back. Wolf Hall was a wild and harrowing ride, but ultimately a fantastic read. There is much to compensate for the burning of John Frith (though it’s something I’ll never forget, or forgive). There are moments of lightheartedness, even of humor, though these tend to have a sinister edge to them. When Cromwell returns to Austin Friars after meeting Anne Boleyn for this first time, the women of his household besiege him with questions. At length one of them, Mercy, asks if Anne has good teeth. An exasperated Cromwell responds “‘For God’s sake, woman: when she sinks them into me, I’ll let you know.'”

In one of my favorite scenes, Cromwell’s son Gregory is brimming with excitement over his current reading matter: the legends of King Arthur and his knights. He can’t wait to share his enthusiasm with his father:

“‘Our king takes his descent from this Arthur. He was never really dead but waited in the forest biding his time, or possibly in a lake. He is several centuries old. Merlin is a wizard. He comes later.You will see. There are twenty-one chapters. If it keeps on raining I mean to read them all. Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.’

Well said, young Gregory; well said.

Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall


  1. Fran said,

    I am about one-third of the way into Wolf Hall and am enjoying it immensely.

  2. Suggestions from Salon for best of 2009 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] a single work by a female author! This in a year of so many outstanding works by women; among them Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s stunning Man Booker Prize winner. Once again, Laura Miller has a thoughtful […]

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    […] fiction, books) You (might have) heard it here first: Hilary Mantel is at work on a sequel to Wolf Hall. The title, at least as of this writing, is The Mirror and the Light. This news gleaned from an […]

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    […] past Thursday, the National Book Critics Circle announced its winners for 2009.  Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantels’ magisterial work of historical fiction, received the fiction prize. The Age […]

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