Friday, December 17, 2010

Wolf Hall, a book review

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is one of the most convincing and enlightening books of historical fiction I've read in a long time. Covering a constantly popularized time period through the eyes of a widely maligned protagonist, it tells the tale of Henry VIII's pursuit, marriage, and gradual disenchantment with Anne Boleyn. Mantel's point of view character is Thomas Cromwell, whom we know from Man for All Seasons as the toady lawyer who profits from his lack of principle, even as Sir Thomas More goes nobly to his death.

What Mantel does is paint a surprisingly touching portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a low-born and self-educated man who, because he's an astute and honorable businessman and because he's unfailingly loyal, rises to great heights among nobles who scorn him. A man of sincere affections, he stands by his beloved mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, long after it seems politically suicidal to do so. When his beloved wife is ripped away from him by the plague in a single day, he manages to go on bleakly caring for his expanding household of extended family, servants and apprentices, but never marrying again.

Cromwell is a complicated man who always manages to turn a profit (though we know that someday he, too, after years of faithful service to the king, will be executed). He's a rough man, abused as a child, a street fighter who is sad to learn he has "a face like a murderer." He treats those he loves with great gentleness. Those he dislikes or opposes he treats with velvet gloves, though his ruthlessness grows as the years go by. Still, in a time of religious violence and brutality, Mantel's Cromwell can't stomach the practice of torturing and burning heretics, while Thomas More considers doing so a not unpleasant duty.

For me one of the great pleasures of this book was the atmosphere it created of sixteenth century London, a growing city, dirty and damp, spread out, still half rural, not yet the center of the world. Another pleasure was the way the book portrays religious feeling. Cromwell reveals little of his own belief, but gradually he seems to become more of a Protestant, believing that the people themselves should have the right to read the Gospels. Henry VIII sincerely wants the Pope's approval of his marriage to Anne Boleyn; to be excommunicated is a fearsome fate.

The book is not a quick read. It has a huge cast of characters: even the indispensable five-page listing at the beginning doesn't cover them all. In debunking the myth of Thomas More, I think Mantel may have gone too far, making him thoroughly unpleasant, stingy, arrogant and coldly cruel not only to heretics but to his own wife. Most difficult of all for the reader is Mantel's narrative choice of a very close third person point of view. She brings us so close to Cromwell's own thoughts that the book constantly refers to him as "he" rather than "Cromwell," even when there's another "he" in the sentence. No matter how attentive you are as a reader, there will be times you can't be certain which "he" is referring to whom.

But all in all, this is a great, deep, satisfying read, like a good night at the theater, rich in pageantry, language, and emotion that you'll remember for a long time.

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