You don’t need me to tell you that Wolf Hall, by British novelist Hilary Mantel, is good. It won the 2009 Man Booker prize, and was also shortlisted for the 2009 Costa Novel award and 2010 Orange Prize for fiction. That sort of success speaks for itself. Clearly, the novel is good.
What I can tell you, though, is that the book is absolutely gripping, mesmerising and magnificent. I chose Wolf Hall almost purely on the basis of its length (650 pages) when looking for something to take away with me on a two-week driving trip through the Kimberley region in remote north-west Australia. Knowing that I’d be spending at least four- and sometimes up to eight- hours in the passenger seat every day, and sure that the scenery couldn’t be gripping for all that time, I was after a book that was. Something big, in every sense of the word, something so vast I could lose myself in it. Wolf Hall delivered in spades.
In a nutshell, Wolf Hall is the story of six years in the reign of King Henry VIII, from 1529 to 1535. It is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose to the position of the king’s Chief Adviser, and who is said to have been “as great a statesman as England has ever seen”. Since I’ve started raving about the book, a number of friends have complained to me that they couldn’t get into it, with one (writer Kate Hunter) despairing that it had “more characters than Twitter”. Admittedly, the political machinations detailed in Wolf Hall are quite complex at times, and it’s possible that I had an advantage as a reader having previously studied British History at university.
That said, all you really need to know is that in the period that the book is set, Henry VIII was so infatuated with Anne Boleyn that he sought to have his marriage to his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, annulled by Pope Julius II, who had legal jurisdiction over England. When the pope refused Henry was so outraged that he broke with Rome, establishing himself instead as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
To keep track of all this, Mantel provides a comprehensive list of dramatis personae at the start of the book. This runs to five pages- yet far from being a distraction, one of Mantel’s greatest skills is her ability to make minor characters as riveting as those taking centre stage. Even after 650 pages, I was dying to know more about Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, bitter that the king- who had fathered an illegitimate son with her before turning his attentions to Anne- still demands her services when his wife is ill or pregnant: “God forbid he should ride a mare from any other stable”. Or Liz Cromwell, dead of the plague, who haunts her husband throughout the book; or Edward Seymour, father of the future queen Jane, who conducts an affair with his son’s wife almost from the moment the couple are wed.
Sex features strongly in Wolf Hall, but never graphically or gratuitously, and always, always as a means to an end. In order to become his queen rather than his mistress, Anne Boleyn teases and torments Henry for seven long years- “For that is Anne’s tactic, you see, she says yes, yes, yes, then she says no.” The question of penetration is central to Henry’s claim that his first marriage was invalid; Anne’s ladies in waiting scheme and gossip about court liaisons that arise not out of lust, but as an opportunity to gain influence or curry favour.
Violence is also ever-present, though again as an intrinsic element of the times, rather than for any cheap effect. The Tudors were a bloodthirsty lot. Much is made of their penchant for locking their opponents in the Tower, or slowly breaking them on Skeffington’s Daughter … “It is a portable device, into which a man is folded, knees to chest, with a hoop of iron across his back. By means of a screw, the hoop is tightened until his ribs crack. It takes art to make sure the man does not suffocate: for if he does, everything he knows is lost.”
The burning at the stake of an elderly woman, as witnessed by the young Thomas Cromwell, is hideous, but also incredibly moving and haunting. In the hands of a lesser novelist it would have been little more than torture porn.
Yet for all its subsidiary themes and players, Wolf Hall undoubtedly belongs to Cromwell. Mantel depicts him as a strong, shrewd but still sympathetic man; loving father, masterful manipulator, the initially reluctant servant who truly comes to love his mercurial master. The relationship between Cromwell and Henry is complex, nuanced and utterly fascinating. One of Mantel’s great themes in Wolf Hall is power- how it is obtained, how it is wielded, how it is lost. At the close of the novel, with its ominous last line, both Cromwell and Anne Boleyn are at the height of their influence, yet history records that things did not go well for either in the following years. I, for one, cannot wait for the promised sequel.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
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About After the Fall:
The story of a friendship between two couples – and an affair that blows their worlds apart.
Two married couples: Kate and Cary, Cressida and Luke. Four people who meet, click, and become firm friends. But then Kate and Luke discover a growing attraction, which becomes an obsession. They fall in love, then fall into an affair. It blows their worlds apart. After the fall, nothing will ever be the same again.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.