Wolf Hall

by on July 27th, 2012
Wolf Hall Cover Image

This won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, but it was all the subsequent references to it in reviews that convinced me to give it a try.   It’s become something of a landmark.
Wolf Hall tells a great story all the more fascinating for being true. It traces the rise of Thomas Cromwell as an advisor to Henry VIII, and encompasses Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, which led to the establishment of the Church of England. It’s a well-known story, but fleshed out in human terms, if by human we mean impossibly witty banter, jaw-dropping hypocrisy,  and astonishing accomplishment which changed the course of western civilization.

Henry and Cromwell made the argument (apparently with straight faces) that Katherine, whom Henry had married, lived with for 20 years and had a child with, was not, in fact, his wife.  She had been married briefly to his brother, and so was actually his sister.  While 20 years of incest was regrettable, a merciful God could forgive that, and Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, who was more likely to provide a male heir.

Nearly as bizarre, this argument took place in the context of the Reformation.  While Henry’s regime was burning heretics, he was himself moving toward a schism with the Catholic Church.  Hilary Mantel’s achievement is to show Cromwell making such paradoxical arguments in good faith, with a fair degree of intellectual and moral rigor.
It will be fun to rewatch A Man for All Seasons after this, which tells the story of Thomas More, a heroic martyr in the movie, a fanatical torturer in Wolf Hall.
I’m  struck by how much of this went over my head.  Whence the title, for instance?  Very little of the action takes place at Wolf Hall.  The place names are just names to me, but the characters know them and react to a place’s characteristics.

A connection to Wikipedia filled me in on many details I didn’t know. That shy, awkward girl attending the queen,  to whom Cromwell nearly proposes marriage?  Turns out Jane Seymour becomes Henry’s next wife, and learning this added layers of meaning and irony to her every appearance.

The sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies has just been published and longlisted for the Booker.  I’m in line.

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