The Taser's Edge

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

I first heard of Wolf Hall when it won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, then a couple acquaintances read it, then a good friend.  Still I didn’t seek it out until I found it on at Durham Public Library on the ‘New and Notable’ shelf.  As for the designation, Wolf Hall is only new-ish.  But it is certainly notable.

The synopsis: Mantel follows Henry VIII’s England from the time he begins to seek an anulment of his first marriage, to Katherine of Aragon, to the death of Thomas More.  But the interesting lens for all this is Thomas Cromwell, a man who was born the son of a blacksmith, became the king’s closest advisor at a relatively young age, and died an earl, all in a time when class structures were still incredibly rigid in England.

The book is also notable for its characterization of major figures within that history, some of which quite divergent from general cultural memory of them:

Henry VIII--childish, fickle, lustful, jealous, arrogant, but also very shrewd, as well as certain that he really is trying to be a Christian king

Anne Boleyn--spiteful, power-hungry, vindictive, scheming, demanding, with perhaps not a single positive character trait in Mantel's rendering

Thomas More--man of the world, ambitious, self-important, pharisaically pious, violent, brilliant

Mary (daughter of Katherine of Aragon, declared illegitimate, eventually becoming 'Bloody Mary')--prideful, distorted, isolated, feels thrown away, but ultimately sympathetic because she has been abused

Thomas Cranmer--respectable, well-intentioned, humble, somewhat bumbling as he tries to navigate his own conscience as a theologian and churchman

Thomas Cromwell--known in his lifetime and in popular history ever since as over-reaching and power-hungry, he is in this book rendered sympathetic (although not all his acts are), the model of a self-made man

I do not consider myself a massive historical novel kind of guy, and what gained my interest was the honest (even if sometimes self-deceived) wrestling with Christian morality throughout.

Thomas Cromwell is secretly involved in bringing the Reformation to England, and the book has a number of tales of English martyrs, as well as a detailing of how the Reformation is unfolding violently in continental Europe.  This is part of the reason Cromwell has no qualms with disobeying the authority of the Pope.

Meanwhile Thomas Cranmer, author/synthesizer of the Book of Common Prayer (its form still mostly present in all Anglican Books of Common Prayer), is being made Rome-recognized Archbishop of Canterbury even as he secretly takes a wife while meeting with Lutheran reformers in Germany.

Mantel’s Henry VIII himself wants to keep earning his title as “Defender of the Faith,” and seems legitimately concerned that he has sinned by taking the wife (Queen Katherine) of his dead brother.  At the same time, he marries Anne Boleyn having already slept with her mother and sister, and he continues sleeping with Anne’s sister when Anne is pregnant with their first child, Elizabeth.

Finally Thomas More, classical humanist, the rare equal of Erasmus, and author of Utopia, is the most bloodthirsty character in the book, while he frames every action as coming out of his Christian character and zeal.

Wolf Hall also does something else very important.  It ends well.  In the last 100 pages or so, Mantel lets loose with some powerful prose, especially exploring Thomas Cromwell’s inner world, as he finds himself at the top of his world yet still thinking back to the physical abuse he received from his father, and to the wife and daughters he lost to disease.  Finally, the ending itself is a significant event, but we are left knowing that history keeps going on.  That is the right way to end any historical novel, regardless of whether you (like Mantel) plan on writing the sequel.

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