Saturday, 28 March 2015

Little Robin Read: Wolf Hall

Well hello there!

Today I'll be reviewing the hugely popular historical novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Now, I'd already watched the BBC dramatisation of this and had massively enjoyed it so I expected a lot from the book. It didn't disappoint.

My colleague lent me her copy, as we're both ├╝ber-geeks when it comes to history. It's actually taken me ages to finish as:

a) I always have about 5 books on the go at any one time and...

b) this tome is very large and I often couldn't be bothered to lug it around on the bus! Thank goodness the paperback has been released!

The length of the novel isn't an issue when it's so well written. Dipping into this before bedtime felt like returning to an old friend.

The book follows the rise of the Tudor courtier Thomas Cromwell. Along with him we witness the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, the Boleyn struggle for power, Henry VIII battling against the pope to claim supremacy over the Church in England,  and the resulting political and religious turbulence.

Mantel's narrator takes on an omniscient role, which means that we are treated to flashbacks from Cromwell's traumatic childhood as well as tantalising snippets from his years spent abroad.

We also see a very human and personal side to Cromwell which hasn't really been seen before. We see some of his losses,  his motives and his strategies for building his own power base. This gives us an intimacy with Cromwell.

Wolf Hall front cover

We are allowed into his inner thoughts and so can see the human being behind the tough political facade.

The most powerful instance of this is Cromwell's struggle with Thomas More. On the surface we see Cromwell pushing More to admit the supremacy of Henry VIII. Below this we see Cromwell buying time for More to give him every opportunity to save his own life.

Mantel obviously knows her stuff as a historical novelist. I was impressed with how subtly interwoven her historical,  socio-political and religious references were. If you didn't get the references it didn't matter too much, but if you did you could see how clever she'd been. I think this gave a real touch of authenticity as life in the tudor period was indeed a tight weave of politics, history and religion.

I found this also changed some of my viewpoints or at least gave me food for thought. I was a great admirer of More, but found Mantel's depiction quite unsympathetic. I never liked Cromwell,  I now feel more of an affiliation with him.

So Mantel has an ability to change minds. That's the mark of a powerful and gifted writer.

The novel takes us up to the point of Henry being about to notice Jane Seymour. The sequel 'Bring Up the Bodies' follows what happens next. Can't  wait to read that!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel,  Fourth Estate:London, 2009

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