Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

15 March 2012

Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,” says Thomas More, “and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.” — Wolf Hall.

I’ll admit it now that I have been a bit of a Hilary Mantel fan girl for a really long time now. I bought my copy of A Place of Greater Safety, which is my favourite book of all time beside From Hell, from Waterstone’s in Colchester on the day that I got my A Level results. I’d been completely and hopelessly obsessed with the French Revolution since I was a little girl and her book just made my love all the more bright and resonant.

It struck a chord too, which is no doubt I remember so clearly the act of buying it. I’d had a chequered educational career, moving schools every couple of years, hating school when I was there, which wasn’t often as I had a truancy problem and then culminating my career by getting knocked up halfway through sixth form and being thrown off two of my courses while failing to ever attend one of the other two. I was flushed, nay replete with victory as I read Mantel’s account of Paris during the French Revolution for despite it all, despite not turning up, slamming doors, getting drunk when I should have been revising and not having read even a quarter of the course material, I’d got the A Levels I needed to escape to Nottingham University to study history.

Of course, what I didn’t know then as I compared myself to eighteenth century rebels and Revolutionaries was that much later, Mantel would write about someone who would resonate even more strongly with me when she resurrected the dry bones of Thomas Cromwell for Wolf Hall.

The one course that I never flunked out on at sixth form was history, having opted to take the Early Modern course rather than the more usual Modern. We were lucky actually – none of the schools that I attended during my previous shambolic educational career had offered any history course worth mentioning (I may have been a truant but I spent those stolen hours either hiding in our gardens with a stack of history books or in Coggeshall library weeping over old biographies of Antoine de Saint-Just) but Colchester Sixth Form offered not just one but FOUR different history courses. I know, right.

Therefore, while I was being all starry eyed about Desmoulins, Danton and Saint-Just, I was getting a pretty thorough grounding in Tudor history by the very lovely Pete Statham and John Matusiak, whom we all joked looked a bit like that Holbein portrait of Cromwell. I had a bit of a crush on him actually. The signs were clearly all there.

I digress.

I hate those Goodreads reviews where people make judgements about other readers based on the books that they do or don’t like. I hate it when people say things like ‘Only pretentious readers will enjoy this’ or ‘if you don’t enjoy this then you clearly don’t like reading’. I’m not going to do that about Wolf Hall. I know some people have struggled with it but for every one of them I know someone else like me who loved it passionately and never wanted it to end. Although I think Wolf Hall is an accessible book and a lovely read, I can honestly see why it dragged for some people or they just didn’t get on with the style.

At times I felt like one of those drippy girls in modern wish fulfilment versions of Jane Austen stories. You know the ones – the sort where they wake up and find themselves back in time and rubbing shoulders with Elizabeth Bennett, Mr Darcy and Emma Woodhouse. That was a bit like me as I read Wolf Hall. I desperately wished that I could fall arms akimbo into its pages and then, I don’t know, run up to Thomas Cromwell and beg him to marry me? Cling to the bannister at Hampton Court or Austin Friars and refuse to ever leave? Go mad like the Maid of Kent and end up burned at the stake after I’ve prophesised terrible ends for them all?

It’s a big book. A BIG book. It’s not daunting though. If it was some weighty, dry as dust and serious tome then yes, it would be a struggle to get through it but the touch here is light and it’s one of the very few books to have actually made me laugh out loud not just once but several times thanks to Cromwell’s sly wit no doubt.

In all my years of greedy promiscuous gorging on books, it is also the only book to have ever made me cry. I don’t just mean a polite leaking of tears either – no I really burst into a hideous shuddering bout of sobbing at one point.

The chief glory here though is that Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell, a perplexing, unflatteringly portrayed and usually much maligned man with tiny piggy eyes and sausage fingers and makes him living breathing flesh once again. Not just that, but she makes him immensely likeable. Loveable even. I never ever EVER could have imagined myself with a crush on Thomas Cromwell but there it is, I adore him in Wolf Hall. I love his kindness; his sharp, whirring, remarkable mind and his humour. I often think that it is a cheap writer’s touch to show a perhaps unsympathetic character being kind to animals and children but here it works and you begin to believe in this fleshed out, complicated man with his silvery courtier’s tongue, ruthless brain and habit of getting all sweet eyed over small dogs and forlorn little boys and collecting around him a bustling, loving household full of friends and family.

It’s not all joviality and bonhommie though – I love his loyalty to the wonderfully verbose and archly charming Wolsey but I also really appreciate the way that he misses nothing and remembers everything. A careless snub from the young Thomas More when Cromwell is a small boy working in Wolsey’s kitchens is mentioned, briefly, in passing but clearly never ever forgotten by Cromwell or by the reader who waits, breathlessly for him to remind More of that split second moment when he failed to return a boy’s friendly wave all those years before.

In Wolf Hall, the names of the men who would eventually be condemned with Anne Boleyn crop up over and over again and I felt the occasional little sympathetic shiver as I thought ‘Cromwell has his eye on you and I’d hate to be in your shoes when he calls that debt in’. Mark Smeaton, in particular, makes several appearances after he makes the schoolboy error of assuming Cromwell, who seems to know all the languages in the world, won’t understand Flemish and allows himself to be overheard unflatteringly comparing his looks to that of a murderer, a remark that Cromwell seems to be hilariously unable to shake from his mind, even as with his son, Gregory he contemplates his famous portrait by Holbein, then newly painted and glossy.

‘I fear Mark was right.’
‘Who is Mark?’
‘A silly little boy who runs after George Boleyn. I once heard him say I looked like a murderer.’
Gregory says, ‘Did you not know?’
— Wolf Hall.

Ah, it’s just insanely entertaining and also moving. I seriously cannot recommend this book enough. It certainly serves as a heady antidote to the current deluge of Tudor fiction that seems to be spewing out at the moment (like the little girl in the rhyme, when it is good, it is very good but when it is bad IT IS DREADFUL), particularly in its treatment of the women of the Tudor court – dark eyed, ambitious Anne with her deceptive frailty; her pretty and apparently guileless sister Mary (now she and Cromwell are clearly a match made in heaven); Queen Katherine; Princess Mary and, best of all, pale little Mistress Seymour who has always been my least favourite of Henry’s wives but is dealt with in an interesting and sympathetic way here.

Also intriguing is his depiction here of Thomas More as a rather unlikeable religious zealot who delights in watching torture and marries ugly women as an obscure form of penance then needles them by discussing them in front of their faces in languages that he knows they don’t understand. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for More so found this a bit difficult at first, but then I found myself really disliking him, which left me with the uneasy feeling that I used to get sometimes at school when I inadvertently found myself laughing at a bully taunting their prey.

As an aside, I re-read this in preparation for the sequel Bring up the Bodies, which is due out on the 10th May and which will focus on Cromwell’s part in the downfall of Anne Boleyn and those young men that he seems to be keeping an eye on.

I’m intrigued also by the upcoming BBC and HBO adaptation of the book. My money is on Dominic West to play Cromwell with Andrea Riseborough playing Anne Boleyn and all other parts to be played by Tom Hardy and Aidan Turner – in female apparel if necessary. What do you think?

Further reading:

Wolf Hall

A Place of Greater Safety

Bring up the Bodies

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