Oh I do wish I’d read this in 2009 because it would have been one of the best reads of the year. There are 11 1/2 more months to go in 2010 and I already have several excellent books coming up on my tbr list.
Really good historical fiction is hard to come by. Either the authors get swept up in the research and the fiction is secondary, or the author honors his creativity and above any respect for history. Sometimes the historical record is the story, other times the history is background. Most always the truth is somewhere in between.
Wolf Hall is an historian’s historical fiction. Mantel took the substantiated facts of the matter and added the dialogue, all told entirely from the pov of Thomas Cromwell in a manner which is really quite remarkable – to the point where the pronoun “he” becomes a bit confusing but almost always refers to the protagonist and I don’t think there is a scene where Cromwell is not present. It’s Cromwell’s book. I’d have to call it a “first 3rd person pov.”
Wolf Hall is named for the residence of the family of Lord Seymour and his family including Jane Seymour – Henry VIII’s 3rd wife and takes place between the years 1490 or so (Cromwell’s childhood) and 1535, just prior to the fall of Anne Boleyn.
Cromwell is really quite the character, suave, appeasing, polite, careful but also hard and goal-oriented. He’s out to win but the powers- that-be must appreciate him – he choses the winners. He’s an opportunist to the max and is what all good opportunists are and not above cheating a bit – whatever the times demand. At home he is the ultimate in loving husband and father (but it’s his own family). With those who attack his position he’s harder than steel and ultimately murderous. He’s Machiavellian, really.
Anne Boleyn is a snake and a shrew here with her family helping. She goes after Henry with every feminine wile at her disposal and then some. She’s a very ambitious, jealous and dangerous woman,
Henry is actually pleasant enough – he just wants his way – now.
And Thomas More is presented as less than saintly, his conscience being troubled more by pledging allegiance to Henry’s church than to the harm he has done other people.
There are so many characters it’s a good thing there’s a list of them up front. I also Googled names to find out more although I’m more or less familiar with the history.
Overall, Mantel’s book is one the finest pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in years. I felt that I’d been really transported back to the days and court of Henry VII with all the intrigue and back-stabbing (hangings) included. There’s not quite enough about the proclamations or the other legal instruments which were devised, created and executed in large part by Cromwell to divorce Katherine and marry Anne but it’s close and more details could really drag a book down.
There are times when the dialogue gets particularly realistic. At one point Cromwell is talking to two people at one time – he’s talking to Johane about marriage and to Richard about the price of bricks. The conversation goes back and forth – it’s hilarious and very cleverly written.
I laughed out loud when one character was awakened from dreaming that he was a pastry. (omg)
And finally, it’s probably a good thing the book ended when it did because Mantel might have a hard time humanizing the Cromwell which came after More’s death.
I recommend this book to anyone with some background in the era. And I’d recommend that folks without that background go read up on it (a little bit is fine) so you can enjoy this book!