Wolf Hall: Surprisingly Readable

Villains are so much more engaging when they have a heart, dontchathink?

I have been ashamed for too long – Wolf Hall has had pride of place on my bookshelf for months now, and I’ve barely poked it. I only wish I had got to it sooner, because once I picked it up I could not put it down. And it seems like the perfect time to talk about it, what with the 2010 Booker shortlist having just been announced (I can’t believe Mitchell wasn’t picked)!

So then: Wolf Hall. The 2009 Booker prize winner is something of an art piece, detailing a vast account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise as the grand vizier to Henry VIII. So often the courts of Henry VIII are the subject of lusty romance fiction novels, with victimised mistresses as bawdy fruit ripe for the picking, and a particular redheaded brute who enjoys hunting, feasting, and aforesaid victimised mistresses. Don’t get me wrong, I love that bodice-ripping stuff. But it can get a little worn. Wolf Hall is of a refreshingly different breed, and Mantel is the architect of a sceptical and calculated court, seen through the beady eyes of one Thomas Cromwell.

The novel’s magic lies in the humanisation of Cromwell – his marriage is a business contract, but he comes to love his wife Liz, his boy Gregory and his two little girls. When Liz, Grace and Anne perish of the sweating sickness we don’t see the outward show of stoic, but instead are witness to Cromwell’s grieving thoughts as he makes a show of conducting his daily business. Mantel treats Cromwell’s life unequally – she is particularly attentive to his early years where his father uses him for bloodsport, and then is attentive to his later years under the majestic Cardinal Wolsey, with very little in between. Yet, this deliberate spotlighting results in a fascinating portrait of a guy whose humble beginnings helps him understand the fickleness of power when everyone around him is a glutton to it.
Cromwell’s wry disdain of mademoiselle Anne Boleyn is particularly evident – I especially love the first introduction of her:

“The lady appeared at court at the Christmas of 1521, dancing in a yellow dress. Daughter of the diplomat, Thomas Boleyn, she has been brought up since childhood in the Burgundian court at Mechelen and Brussels, and more recently in Paris, moving in Queen Claude’s train between the pretty chateax of the Loire. Now she speaks her tongue with a slight, unplaceable accent, strewing her sentences with French words when she pretends she can’t think of the English. At Shrovetide, she dances in a court masque. The ladies are costumed as Virtues, and she takes the part of Perseverence. She dances gracefully but briskly, with an amused expression on her face, a hard, impersonal touch-me-not smile. Soon she has a little trail of petty gentlemen following her; and one not so petty gentleman. The rumour spreads that she is going to marry Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s heir.”
-[Page 67, Wolf Hall.]

The rest of the book is just as impeccably written. And if you expect to see the rise AND fall of Thomas Cromwell, you will be disappointed – the curtain closes when Thomas is at the height of his power in 1535, five years before his downfall and his execution at Henry VIII’s word in 1540. To my mind it is the perfect send-off. You can’t help but feel a little uneasy, like a gypsy reader unsure of her own clairvoyance. Thomas Cromwell, in the closing of Wolf Hall appears as if he will be Henry’s beloved forever. But that’s the draw of power, isn’t it? It makes you omnipotent and thrillingly vulnerable in the same intoxicating breath.