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Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell) Paperback – January 1, 2010
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- ASIN : 0007230206
- Publisher : Harper Collins Publishers; 1st Edition (January 1, 2010)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 400 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780007230204
- ISBN-13 : 978-0007230204
- Item Weight : 1.06 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.08 x 1.65 x 7.8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,740,346 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Normally, I read a book first and then—if a subsequent film production gets rave reviews—I’ll see the movie. Occasionally, the movie will live magnificently up to all my wildest expectations; To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of movie-from-book perfection. And occasionally, rarely, a movie will surpass the book. I thought The Graduate a mediocre book, but the movie was and always will be a classic portrait of a particular time and place.
Which brings us to Wolf Hall. I’m not sure how and why I missed the book. It won a Man-Booker Prize (Great Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, though over there they might say the Pulitzer is America’s equivalent of the Booker) and then author Hilary Mantel turned right around and won another Man-Booker for the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. That is, I believe, the only time Booker prizes have ever been awarded to a novel and then its sequel.
Not only had I missed the book(s), but at first, when I saw the trailers on PBS for the film version, I wasn’t all that intrigued. Downton Abbey had just finished its last episode of the season and it was hard to imagine anything equaling that. So, a mini-series based on Henry VIII and his wretched excesses, told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s, ah, shall we say, less fastidious enablers… Ho, hum. I’ve read my history; I’ve seen A Man for All Seasons; been there, done that. But a Close Relative By Marriage insisted we watch, and after the first ten minutes you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. That’s how good the production was, and Mark Rylance, the British actor who stars as Thomas Cromwell, gave one of the most compelling performances I have ever seen: quiet, understated, absolutely convincing, and absolutely electrifying. So consider this also a rave review for the PBS series.
(By the way, for those of you interested in historical tidbits: any great English house with “abbey” as part of its name, as in Downton Abbey, is so named because when Henry VIII, aided by Thomas Cromwell, took the great monasteries from the Pope, he awarded some of those lands to favored courtiers who retained the appellation “abbey.”)
After the second episode I galloped to my desk and ordered copies of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for myself and just everybody I know, and as soon as they arrived, I dove in. Now I know why Hilary Mantel won the Man-Booker twice. She deserves it.
In case you’re even more of a troglodyte than I and you’ve never heard of Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, yes, it’s Henry VIII and all his unfortunate wives and all those men and women who circled around the king and his court like flies around a corpse, but… But how much do you actually know about Thomas Cromwell? Ah. That’s the point. That’s part of Hilary Mantel’s genius: she has taken a famous and influential man about whom little is known and gone to town with him.
Thomas Cromwell is one of those mysterious figures in history who beggar the imagination. Acknowledged as arguably the single most influential minister (that’s minister in the political sense, not ecclesiastical) in all of English history, he seems to have sprung fully evolved out of his own imagining and will power. Even the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica describes his origins and early life as “obscure.” Probably (no one knows for certain) born around 1485; probably (no one knows for certain) born in Putney, at that time a decidedly seedy suburb of London; probably (no one know for certain) born to a man who may have been named Cromwell, but who may have been named Smyth who was probably (no one knows for certain) a blacksmith, but who might have been a brewer or a cloth merchant or all of the above; Thomas Cromwell probably (no one knows for certain) and improbably somehow ended up in Italy early in his life; he probably (no one knows for certain) lived in the Low Countries (think Flanders, Holland, Belgium); and he was probably (no one knows for certain) somehow associated with the London Merchant Adventurers. His early history contains the qualifying words “seems,” “appears,” “might have,” and “probably” almost more than any others.
And yet, somehow, out of these inauspicious beginnings, Thomas Cromwell suddenly burst into history in 1520 as a solicitor (that’s “lawyer” to we simple-minded Americans) to the great and immensely powerful Cardinal Wolsey. How did a man from such meager beginnings in such a rigidly stratified society manage to catapult himself into the halls of power and the pages of history?
I stumbled across an interview on the internet with Hilary Mantel, and that question is pretty much what compelled her to start her journey. So that’s half the genius.
The other half is Mantel’s writing.
To quote Rudyard Kipling:
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right.”
Doubtless very true, and who am I to question as great a writer as Rudyard Kipling? But some methods of construction are righter than others, and Hilary Mantel’s writing is breathtaking.
Of all the varied ways of constructing tribal lays, the one that appeals most to me is the kind where a master artist plays with his or her materials. Think Shakespeare. Think Faulkner. Think Cormac McCarthy. Think Hilary Mantel. The English language, so rich and varied, so ripe with multiple subtle meanings, lends itself to a kind of imaginative playfulness, verbal pyrotechnics, if you like, that amaze and delight. She writes in the present tense, third person singular, which lends an urgency to her tale, but she jumps back and forth in time, sometimes in a sentence, sometimes in a paragraph, sometimes in a section, using the mnemonic device of Cromwell’s memories to give us information about him and his past. But it is the oblique grace with which she tells her story that is so delightful. I will give you one example.
Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of what will eventually become Mantel’s trilogy, opens with Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII out hawking. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s daughters have died, but he cannot allow himself the luxury of grief. He lives to serve the king, and as a minister to the king he cannot indulge in such distracting luxuries as grief or rage or love or hate. Whatever he might feel or want must be subsumed in service to the throne. So in “Falcons,” the opening chapter of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell and Henry are sitting their horses and watching their falcons, and a lesser, more pedestrian, writer might have opened the book with a paragraph such as:
“Cromwell watches his falcons plunging after their prey. He has named the birds after his daughters, and as he and the king watch from horseback, this one, Grace, takes her prey in silence, returning to his fist with only a slight rustling of feathers and a blood-streaked breast…”
And so on.
Now, consider this, Señorita; consider how Hilary Mantel handles the opening.
“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”
If you don’t like that, you don’t like chocolate cake.
Top reviews from other countries
It's nearly impossible to figure out what is happening or who is speaking. The prose is written in the present tense, which I find incredibly irritating for some reason and makes the book sound like a Peppa Pig or Charlie and Lola book. The most infuriating thing though is Mantel's habit of writing "he says" during a conversation between three, or possibly four, men meaning that you have no idea who is speaking. She also quite often uses speech without quote marks, e.g. "He says, don't be childish. George says, she is so a witch: the Duke of Norfolk says she is, and he's her uncle, he should know." I'm at a loss who the first "he" refers to. I thought it was Cavendish because that's the only name mentioned in the two pages before but then the following page tells us that "he would rather be drinking with Cavendish". The book is a complete mess and how this won the Man Booker Prize is a mystery to me, but it doesn't make me want to read any other winners.
Interestingly, I tweeted that I was reading a prize winning book that was impossible to follow but did not name the author. It took less than 2 minutes for 10 people to all correctly guess the author and book I was talking about so clearly I'm not the only person who feels this way.
The tempo is SO slow and the dialogue is lacking any real character, and so I gave up on it without even reaching 100 pages. Maybe it would have got better had I persevered with it, but I had lost my enthusiasm for it at that point. A real shame as it’s set in such an incredible point in British history.
The problem though is that it is incredibly poorly written. All the characters are lifeless, hard to tell apart from each other, the story is... uneventful at best. You hardly even know who the author is talking about, you always find the awful structure: "He, Cromwell, thought.." So clearly, the author is as confused as you are (and if it's voluntary for purpose of style, it's even worse). I hardly ever give up on a book after reading half of it. But I realised that when you put the book down to browse on your phone, you just have to face the fact. To me this book is a missed opportunity.
Wolf Hall is a book about Thomas Cromwell. It is told from his point of view, but not in the first person. This creates a narrative in which we see the world through Thomas’ eyes, be where he is, know something of what he knows, but we can also pull back and see him, asking questions of himself as he sorts out the lives of others. Thomas in this version is a ‘fixer’, the supreme pragmatist who does what has to be done to whoever needs sorting out. His memory is a blessing in this work, but a curse as he copes with the loss of his wife and daughters. The loss of his family haunts this book, as does his awareness of ghosts of the past, those who lived in a house before him, and Cardinal Wolsey’s enormous personality. He copes with the women of the court, Anne, Katherine, Mary and the others that serve them with caution and sometimes confusion, seeing them as another problem to solve as well as possible actors in his scenarios. King Henry is sometimes a child to be placated, an impossible, querulous dictator. Cromwell has his measure in this book, but remains under no illusions that he must proceed with caution to avoid potentially fatal confrontations.
This is not a perfect book. It takes its time to get anywhere, and sometimes gets bogged down under the weight of its constant thinking, reaction and action, plotting and planning. Yet it is a human book in its diverse progress, the tangents and confusions that we can understand. Life in this period could be and often was short and brutal, and this book shows us how and why. Mantel has said that she was keen to look at the events of Henry’s reign through other eyes than the wives, the King himself, the minor functionaries of court. Thomas Cromwell was the supreme fixer of problems and situations. This book shows you how and why, as well as the human thought processes behind his survival and success in a dangerous time.