From the very first sentence of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel had me. This is a richly imagined novel — an absolutely believeable world with a full, complex, and well developed cast of characters — so plausible that the reader becomes totally immersed forgetting the history except to savour its drama and colour as the story unfolds. I loved the references to food and wine, the street scenes, the Tower, the collecting of the candle stubs to return them for melting, the cats including the fantastically named Marlinspike. I loved the wit and the humour, the vast cast of characters, the drama and intrigue. I’m not surprised it won the Man Booker in 2009 – I found it a beautifully written novel with rich and resonant language and imagery and also a page-turner.
Any student of history will tell you that human nature doesn’t change very much across generations but Hilary Mantel will show you because although Wolf Hall is set in the early years of the sixteenth century, it could just as easily be a contemporary novel. Its themes are power and influence as its cast of characters see their fortunes rise and fall and the cast includes many well-known names from Cardinal Thomas Wolsley to Henry VIII and his first two wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and their respective daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.
The story is centred on Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who ran away from a cruel father to carve out a powerful career for himself in the court of King Henry VIII where he has responsibility for controlling the purse strings. In contrast to his historical reputation, the Thomas Cromwell we encounter in Wolf Hall is a likeable character with a good sense of humour, capable of kindness but also ruthless and perhaps even cruel. His fortunes are tied to those of the King on whose behalf he works to secure a divorce from Katherine so that Henry can be freed to marry Anne Boleyn.
Henry is a likeable character, a King in need of an heir, frustrated by obstacles that him prevent him getting his way, finances under some pressure, troubles to contend with north of the border and in Ireland as well as in international relations with his problems in part at least, his own fault. He is man who shows kindness, who can be loyal, sometimes foolish and truculent, troubled by his conscience but not enough for it to stand in the way of pursuing what he wants. And, for much of the book, what he wants is Anne Boleyn.
Anne is probably the least sympathetic character in the book — beautiful yes, but she is scheming and manipulative and, we think, playing the king. She wins the game but she also lives with the pressure of needing to produce a son. We may not like her but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some sympathy for her particularly as we know what her ultimate fate will be.
And of course influence of the Church is ever-present – a great difficulty for the King because it is the obstacle in the way of divorcing Katherine. Loyalty to the church — or to the higher laws at least — is what brings about the demise of the philosopher Thomas More, a major character in the last part of the book.
The book ends with every sign that Henry is tiring of Anne and the days of her influence are coming to an end. What is really interesting is that the conclusion comes not from the author, but from the reader’s own knowledge of Anne’s fate — even if only from the school-learned “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced beheaded, survived”.
For her part, Mantel leaves us before the Queen’s end with Cromwell heading for Wolf Hall, seat of the Seymours from whose stock Anne’s successor will later come.
Wolf Hall is one of those books that leaves you wanting more. With a sequel (Bring up the Bodies) due in May 2012, I am looking forward to reading more.
Wolf Hall is published by Fourth Estate. ISBN 0007230184. (I read the Kindle edition).