(Not the cover of my copy but I like this one a lot more!)
While I’ve known the basics of Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn saga, I have to confess that I only know of a few major players such as Cardinal Wolsey from what I’ve seen on the Bravo TV show The Tudors, which is wildly inaccurate to say the least. So Hilary Mantel’s depiction is informed and contradicted by what popular culture tells me about this historical moment. That Anne Boleyn is a seductress that almost brought an empire to its knees. That Henry will forever be known for having six wives and disposing of them in horrific ways. This is something that Wolf Hall takes into account without addressing it overtly.
Wolf Hall is surprisingly modern, but I don’t quite know how to convey that through textual evidence. It just feels that way to me. Part of it is the prose–it does away with leisurely sentences that writers often use to signal that a novel is historical. The juxtaposition of the pomposity and machination within the king’s court with the clipped, precise sentences that describe them can be jarring, but I find it incredibly effective.
The story focuses on Thomas Cromwell, a butcher’s son who joins the army to escape his abusive father. Smart and resourceful even as a boy, he picks up several languages and makes a name for himself in countries like Italy and Belgium. There’s a rather abrupt jump forward in the narrative where we see Thomas as a confidant and lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey, the most powerful member of the Catholic Church in England at the time. More a man of politics than of the Church, Wolsey has the responsibility of smoothing out the mess generated by Henry VIII‘s desire to divorce Katherine of Aragon after twenty years of marriage. At this point, Thomas is only at the periphery of the major events, only coming upon the details because Wolsey confides in him about the precariousness of his position in court. However, Thomas also has a large network of people who inform him of important details, a resource that he uses to help out Wolsey.
Mantel is doing something different in her storytelling. The intrigue presented so far are mostly hearsay–Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII has never even met yet, as far as I could tell–but the tension is already so tight. The prose is not bogged down by exposition despite the denseness of both the political and psychological ripples of the story. I think part of what makes it fresh is the jumps around the timeline. Very early on, she depicts Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from grace, his title of Lord Chancellor wrench away from him. A quick glance at Wikipedia can tell you about his ultimate fate but those scenes in Wolf Hall are especially arresting.
One thing that bothers me with the style is the way one paragraph can have dialogue from two different people. This becomes double confusing because Mantel often refers to Thomas (and there are a lot of Thomases here) as ‘he’ instead of his name.
That’s all for now. Off to read more!