This is not a book for those with short attention spans, those looking for steamy romance or thrilling action, or those not wanting to strengthen their arm muscles. It is for those who dare to delve into England’s quiet and murky secrets.
Quite the tome (650 pages in the 2009 hardback edition), this is a triumph of history and literature alike, a beautiful unravelling of Thomas Cromwell the man. Notorious as the one who weaselled his way to the ear of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall reminds us of his humanity, his roots, and his ambitions. Not just someone desperate to make his way to the top, but instead a man with a shrewd way of thinking, understanding of the king’s needs, and brave enough to do everything necessary to help him achieve greatness.
Covering Henry’s move away from Katherine of Aragon and into the arms of Anne Boleyn, Hilary Mantel pulls together stories of the past that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. The intricacies of court life, the scandal that the king should abandon 20 good years of marriage for the brooding eyes of a (second) Boleyn. And amongst it all, the quiet increase in power of Cromwell who, marred by his own personal tragedy, but with a heart full for his son and wards, had only the hopes of the king and kingdom in his mind, for better or worse. Whether or not he really was the tyrant that history makes him out to be, this book provides an alternative history. We can often remember the Tudor dynasty as the stuff of myths and legends, but these were fallible people with flaws, desires, and many mistakes.
What is remarkable about Wolf Hall is despite its somewhat intimidating length, the period of history covered is relatively short, focusing on the years 1527-1535. But within that time, England lost and gained queens, separated from Rome, saw the infamous Cardinal Wolsey rise and fall, and the son of a blacksmith become one of the most influential people in the country. There were plagues, storms, and festivities, two female heirs, a miscarriage, and several executions. All without venturing too far from English soil. Henry’s domestic policies and affairs were just as intricate – if not more so – than those with his foreign enemies. Behind it all, Cromwell worked tirelessly to gain the trust of his monarch, train up his constant flow of apprentices, and battle the ghosts of his heart and mind.
I concede not everyone will enjoy this book, and know for a fact that my mother only made it to page 50. For those without a deep interest in the detail of Tudor life, it can be read as dry and unengaging. But for me, whose love of the past never seems to be sated, I found Mantel’s epic to be all I’d hoped it would be. The daily lives of those hundreds years ago will always amaze and intrigue me, and understanding more of England’s most renowned monarchs will forever draw me in. If your mind (and biceps!) are up to the challenge, Wolf Hall will reward all who enter.