Finishing Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

1st Diary Entry – Wolf Hall
2nd Diary Entry – Wolf Hall

There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

The storytelling structure becomes more or less conventional once Thomas Cromwell becomes the top dog in the eyes of both Henry VIII and the Boleyns. In the early parts of the novel, Henry was a sort of misguided yet not entirely unlikeable character, but by the end he has become a right bastard. Is it weird that I still root for Thomas Cromwell despite the fact that he is largely responsible for Henry’s descent into assholery? That’s what a masterful command of point-of-view can do, I guess.

Cromwell brings about the final rupture between the kingdom of England and the Catholic Church through a series of laws, a significant historical turn in favor of secularism. One by one, he succeeds in turning not only the aristocrats, but also the moneyed commoners and scholars, into supporting his bills. Henry rewards every success with a lengthening list of titles: Master of the Jewels, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Viceregent for Spirituals. Anne becomes queen in a lavish ceremony, gives birth to Princess Elizabeth (the first “disappointment”), and miscarries another child (the second one). The novel closes with Anne pregnant with their third child, but we all know how that will turn out too.

The Rise of the Merchant Class

However, I found the happenings at court and the Parliament somehow less interesting than the effect of Cromwell’s rise to power on his family and the effect of England’s break on from the Catholic Church in English society. He becomes important enough to be painted by Hans Holbein (the portrait on this post is an important plot detail). Mantel has framed the circumstances to portray a class of intellectuals and merchants who have no debt whatsoever to the Church and felt that its leaders in England is stifling commerce and the growth of culture.

Thomas More’s refusal to acknowledge Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn causes him to fall out of favor, and he eventually gives up his position as Chancellor. This is strangely glossed over in Mantel’s narrative, though I suspect that is because More’s career and eventual death has been depicted endlessly in art and literature. It is quite telling that the novel itself ends at More’s execution, though–this situates More as the last bastion of Catholic scholarship in English soil in addition to his role as Cromwell’s archnemesis.

I do admittedly felt a little let down by the end of the novel, mostly because the story feels very much unfinished. The sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, will be published this year, so that takes care of that. I’m not quite sure if I am ready to read about Anne Boleyn’s downfall, since it promises to be quite harrowing.

Speaking of Anne, she’s the one character whose characterization is difficult for me to grasp. I get Henry’s motivations for the most part but Anne’s specific brand of cunning and vindictiveness is hard to locate. She’s cruel to her sister Mary as well as to Henry’s daughter Princess Mary. She also lashes out at Henry, apparently. I just don’t understand why she’d do that–she has been very smart with her choices so far and antagonizing the king will (obviously) make life difficult for her. She relies too much on the idea that Henry’s affection for her is infinite and she is burning more bridges than she should. Henry, after all, once deeply loved Katherine of Aragon.

Oh Thomas! I know you’re going to die and I kind of don’t want to read that. Maybe I’ll just buy Mantel’s new book and not read it. :(

I almost forgot that Wolf Hall won The Morning News’s Tournament of the Books in 2009! While a lot of the criticism the reviewers brought up there are fair, I don’t truck with their ambivalence at all. I finished the book on February 2 and I still find myself thinking about Thomas Cromwell a lot. This book stays with you.

(I wonder if I should make another, much shorter review to post on Goodreads. Three posts’ worth of words is kind of too much…)


3 thoughts on “Finishing Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

    • I suggest doing a light reading of the Anne Boleyn/Henry VIII debacle because Mantel doesn’t the basics. A quick dip into Wikipedia would be more than enough, I think. I don’t often read historical fiction, but I flat out love this.

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