Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel ….Again!

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How do you review a book that has been around for so long, been staged and on tv? I have recently reread this book for another project, and been overwhelmed by just how good it is, and how reluctant I was to finish it. My previous comments on it revolve largely around how long it took me to read it, how tricky it was to follow, and such like moans. It is still a long book, an undertaking to read, and requires a new mind set to appreciate the new view it offers of a time, place and people. Diana Athill wrote “I can’t think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly creates a world.” As Middlemarch is a favourite of mine for its creation of a time, place and people, I can completely understand what she means.

Wolf Hall is a book about Thomas Cromwell. It is told from his point of view, but not in the first person. This creates a narrative in which we see the world through Thomas’ eyes, be where he is, know something of what he knows, but we can also pull back and see him, asking questions of himself as he sorts out the lives of others. Thomas in this version is a ‘fixer’, the supreme pragmatist who does what has to be done to whoever needs sorting out. His memory is a blessing in this work, but a curse as he copes with the loss of his wife and daughters. The loss of his family haunts this book, as does his awareness of ghosts of the past, those who lived in a house before him, and Cardinal Wolsey’s enormous personality. He copes with the women of the court, Anne, Katherine, Mary and the others that serve them with caution and sometimes confusion, seeing them as another problem to solve as well as possible actors in his scenarios.  King Henry is sometimes a child to be placated, an impossible, querulous dictator. Cromwell has his measure in this book, but remains under no illusions that he must proceed with caution to avoid potentially fatal confrontations.

This is not a perfect book. It takes its time to get anywhere, and sometimes gets bogged down under the weight of its constant thinking, reaction and action, plotting and planning. Yet it is a human book in its diverse progress, the tangents and confusions that we can understand. Life in this period could be and often was short and brutal, and this book shows us how and why. Mantel has said that she was keen to look at the events of Henry’s reign through other eyes than the wives, the King himself, the minor functionaries of court. Thomas Cromwell was the supreme fixer of problems and situations. This book shows you how and why, as well as the human thought processes behind his survival and success in a dangerous time.

The project that I am wading through huge books for is a talk on the Reformation in fiction. The Reformation in the church of the early 1500s is not really a subject for direct fiction, so I have been reading things like Dissolution as well as Wolf Hall to try and get some of the aspects of the subject illustrated. I am ploughing through the immense “The Man on  a Donkey” by H.F.M. Prescott which makes Wolf Hall look like a short story! Many characters, some real, some fictional, are all heading to life changing events.  I am about a third into the copy I have, and it was really the first novel of three. Brilliantly written, but so long. So very, very long…

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