Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wolf Hall Book Review

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Oct. 2009

Why?  Coffee and a Book Chick ReadAlong and to feed my Tudor addiction
What Now?  Onto the glass shelves this one goes...after I actually order a copy that is conducive to sitting on shelves, that is.

Golden Lines

"May I speak?'
"Oh, for God's sake," Henry cries.  "I wish someone would."
He is startled.  Then he understands.  Henry wants a conversation, on any topic.  One that's nothing to do with love, or hunting, or war.  Now that Wolsey's gone, there's not much scope for it; unless you want to talk to a priest of some stripe.  And if you send for a priest, what does it come back to?  To love; to Anne; to what you want and can't have.

He has never told anyone this story.  He doesn't mind talking to Richard, to Rafe about his past - within reason - but he doesn't mean to give away pieces of himself.

There were days, not too long past, days since Lizzie died, when he'd woken in the morning and had to decide, before he could speak to anybody, who he was and why.

But it is no use to justify yourself.  It is no good to explain.  It is weak to be anecdotal.  It is wise to conceal the past even if there's nothing to conceal.   A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face.  It is the absence of facts that frightens people; the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

Anne says, "I am Jezebel.  You, Thomas Cromwell, are the priests of Baal."  Her eyes are alight.  "As I am a woman, I am the means by which sin enters this world.  I am the devil's gateway, the cursed ingress.  I am the means by which Satan attacks the man, whom he was not bold enough to attack, except through me.  Well, that is their view of the situation.  My view is that there are too many priests with scant learning and smaller occupation.  And I wish the Pope and the  Emperor and all  Spaniards were in the sea and drowned.  And if anyone is to be thrown out of a palace window...alors, Thomas, I know who I would like to throw.  Except the child Mary, the wild dogs would not find a scrap of flesh to gnaw, and Katherine, she is so fat she would bounce."

One of those afternoons when I told my king a little, and he told me a lot: how he shakes with desire when he thinks of Anne, how he has tried other women, tried them as an expedient to take the edge off lust, so that he can think and talk and act as a reasoning man, but how he has failed with them...A strange admission, but he thinks it justifies him, he thinks it verifies the rightness of his pursuit, for I chase but one hind, he says, one strange deer timid and wild, and she leads me off the paths that other men have trod, and by myself into the depths of the wood.

"Is she to have new jewels?"
"She is to have Katherine's.  He has not lost all sense."

In the doorway he pauses and turns back to the earl.  "And I will tell you this, for the avoidance of doubt.  If you think Lady Anne loves you, you could not be more mistaken.  She hates you.  The only service you can do her now, short of dying, is to unsay what you said to your poor wife, and take any oath that is required of you, to clear her path to become Queen of England."

Bishop Gardiner reads out Anne's new title.  She is vivid in red velvet and ermine, and her black hair falls, virgin-style, in snaky locks to her waste.  He, Cromwell, has organized the income from fifteen manors to support her dignity.

The child in Anne's womb is the guarantee of no more civil war.  He is the beginning, the start of something, the promise of another country.

When a woman withdraws to give birth the sun may be shining but the shutters of her room  are closed so she can make her own weather.  She is kept in the dark so she can dream.  Her dreams drift her far away, from terra firma to a marshy tract of land, to a landing stage, to a river where a mist closes over the farther bank, and the earth and sky are inseparate; there she must embark toward life and death, a muffled figure in the stern directing the oars.  In this vessel prayers are said that men never hear.  Bargains are struck between a woman and her God.  The river is tidal, and between one featherstroke and the next, her tide may turn.
On August 26, 1533, a procession escorts the queen to her sealed rooms at Greenwich.  Her husband kisses her, adieu and bon voyage, and she neither smiles nor speaks.  She is very pale, very grand, a tiny jeweled head balanced on the swaying tent of her body, her steps small and circumspect, a prayer book in her hands.  On the quay she turns her head:  one lingering glance.  She sees him; she sees the archbishop.  One last look and then, her women steadying her elbows, she puts her foot into the boat.

The brief respite is over; the princess sets up a screech that would bring out the dead.  Anne's glance slides away sideways, and a sideways grin of infatuation takes over her whole face, and she leans down toward her daughter, but at once women swoop, flapping and bustling; the screaming creature is plucked up, wrapped up, swept away, and the queen's eyes follow pitifully as the fruit of her womb exits, in procession.

He had advised the king, leave Mary in possession of her style as princess, do not diminish anything.  Do not give her cousin the Emperor a reason to make war.
Henry had shouted, "Will you go to the queen, and suggest to her that Mary keep her title?  For I tell you, Master Cromwell, I am not going to do it.  And if you put her in a great passion, as you will, and she falls ill and miscarries her child, you will be responsible!  And I shall not incline to mercy!"

You've given Mary good advice, she says, I hope she heeds it, I fear there are hard times ahead for her.  She talks about her brother Thomas Boleyn, the most selfish man I ever knew, it is no wonder Anne is so grasping, all she has ever heard from him is talk of money, and how to gain a mean advantage over people, he would have sold those girls naked at a Barbary slave market if he had thought he would get a good price.

Mary, breathless, reaches into the mill of her possessions and throws Jane Seymour a pair of sleeves.  "Take these, sweetheart, with my blessing.  You have the only kind heart at court."

You know him, Cromwell, you have seen him on her arm.  She takes him everywhere.  Sometimes," and now he nods judiciously, "I think she loves him better than me.  Yes, I am second to the dog."

If they think that they will maintain to the end the equanimity of their prayer-lives, they are wrong, because the law demands the full traitor's penalty, the short spin in the wind and the conscious public disemboweling, a brazier alight for human entrails.  It is the most horrible of all deaths, pain and rage and humiliation swallowed to the dregs, the fear so great that the strongest rebel is unmanned before the executioner with his knife can do the job; before each one dies he watches his fellows and, cut down from the rope, he crawls like an animal round and round on the bloody boards.

Early September.  Five days.  Wolf Hall.


Thomas Cromwell rises to become the most powerful man in King Henry VIII's court, the man who has Henry's ear and his chief adviser for a while...born as a commoner, Cromwell's success was unheard of and bitterly envied by those higher born around him.  Cromwell's dysfunctional childhood, early life abroad to escape his violent father, and return home as a self-made man shaped the person Cromwell and he finds himself  under the tutelege of Cardinal Wolsey during his own term of office for King Henry.
His life as a business man and family man then gives the reader a glimpse of true success for any man, especially that of a common born man during this time period.  Happiness is fleeting though and life for anyone could change in a heartbeat...lives were erased each season by a beloved wife's death during childbirth, the loss of many children before they reached their teens, and diseases such as The Sweat, which could and did wipe out entire families within just a few days.  Cromwell is not immune.  As his family life changes, his life in business becomes more and more prioritized...the business side of Cromwell becomes easier to bear as compared to the personal losses.  Cromwell's rise to power coincides with the beginning of the Reformation.  King Henry wants to break with the Catholic Church and become Supreme Head of the Church of England so that he can leave first wife, Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.  Henry's decisions, how they affect the church and the people of England, his marriage to Anne Boleyn and the failure of that union to produce a living male heir to the throne take place as Cromwell is at the top of his game.  He speaks privately to Anne as well as Henry, balances the power struggles at court, and acts as intercessory between Henry and foreign dignitaries on the brink of war.  All in all, Cromwell's life becomes a high stakes balancing in which the reader knows eventually that a ball will have to drop.  

What I Liked

Getting to know Thomas Cromwell - in all honesty, the only things I knew about Cromwell came from watching The Tudors where he seems snaky and slimy most of the time (it didn't help matters that the actor who played Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors also played one of the most evil vampires on True Blood).  What's left out of The Tudors is all of the years preceding Cromwell's arrival at court.  Life was hard then, and life could change completely with the snap of a finger.  A person might find himself/herself starting over even more than once or twice in a lifetime due to circumstances beyond his/her control.  And, while those kinds of events still happen sometimes today, during Cromwell's life, it was normal and even expected.  In Wolf Hall, I found Cromwell to be an honest, realistic man.  He loved the King and wanted him to have what he wanted.  But, he also knew the consequences.  He questioned the status quo...carefully, but kept his eyes and ears open within as many circles as possible.  Cromwell was ready for progress and hoped that he would be able to lead the King into a life without the Roman Catholic Church.

Anne Boleyn - probably one of the most infamous women in world history, Anne Boleyn is known as the devil, a witch, a harlot, etc.  What she was, I am more and more convinced as I keep reading, is just like any other woman of her time, bought and sold between fathers and suitors.   A daughter was nothing more than a bargaining which was only truly valuable if somehow unspoiled by the time she reached marriageable age.   Anne was a pawn of her father, just like her sister Mary but got lucky.  Anne was married to the King of England while Mary only got used.   I can't even imagine.
All that said, I think Anne was definitely a handful...she became bolder and bolder within her marriage...and Henry probably treated her more equally than he did any of his other wives.  I think that's because their relationship was as close to normal as he would ever have.   I actually believe they loved each other.  When Anne didn't produce him sons, Henry began to question whether or not the union was right in God's eyes...and he let scheming advisers around him perpetuate the propaganda they'd all been raised on...born a Catholic, always a Catholic.

King Henry VIII - known as the fat king with 6 wives, a turkey leg in one hand, and an ax in the other (for chopping off everybody's heads).  Like Anne, Henry was a product of his upbringing and the duties of his royalty.  Imagine being taught from an early age that you are chosen by God to lead your people...first of all, that's a hell of a lot of pressure.  2nd of all, you've got this job to do, but all these other people keep getting in your way, clouding your mind with their own agendas.  3rd of all, you'd really like to have some semblance of a normal life, but no matter how much you want it, protocol won't allow it.  You are the King of are your country and your country depends on you, just you.  Henry was probably one of the loneliest people in the world.  He was a man and he was King; he should be able to withstand anything and no one should be able to get the best of him.  Everybody's watching...and waiting for that moment, no matter how short, where they might sneak in and usurp your throne.  The people must love you, but they also must fear you.  It's for their own good.
Imagine if they'd had Xanax back then??

What I Didn't Like

Cromwell is called he all the way through the almost 600 pages.  There were more than several times that I had to back up and figure out who the pronoun "he" was referring to since there were so very many "he's" in power in Tudor England.  Conversation dialogue was also difficult at times when distinguishing what was actually being said and the short narratives in between.  In a lesser book these would have been deal breakers for me...I'm an English teacher, for heaven sake.  There are only so many ambiguous pronouns and left out punctuation I can be expected to overlook.  However,  as tasking as it was at times, I never considered putting this book down.  The puzzle was worth figuring out.  There was also never the feeling that these grammar omissions were done accidentally; Mantel obviously uses these slips in conventional writing for a purpose.  What purpose, I'm not exactly sure yet.  Was it to make us feel more like we were traveling back in time, standing by as the action unfolds, wanting and needing perhaps to ask questions but without that ability...we have only been granted access to these events as silent watchers?   Was it to make us pay a little closer attention?  I honestly don't know, but I felt there was a plan in place and I just had to be sharp enough to keep up. 

Overall Recommendation

Tudor fans, British history buffs, chunkster savorers, language fiends


  1. BibliophilebytheseaFebruary 9, 2012 at 5:48 AM

    I bought the Kindle version when it was 11st released and still haven't read it. For some reason, I've been intimidated by this one:)

  2. You are definitely not the first person to complain about the pronouns.  I like historical fiction, but I'm enough of a newbie that I fear this book would swallow me whole.  Major intimidation.

  3. There's enough action to keep you going...of course I'm biased in that I'm incredibly interested in the content.  It is one to take slowly though...pace yourself sortof like a marathon.  Wolf Hall was the name of Jane Seymour's family home, and she is who Henry eventually will replace Anne with, so there's a little bit of a teaser going on as well...with the title and with the last lines, which are my last golden lines.

  4. I read a few other things in between finishing this one...and the ReadAlong left me behind pretty quickly, just because I'm slower with this kind of stuff than I am other books.  I'm too anal about all the info...I like to think about it, look stuff up, watch documentaries (eyes rolling)...I'm a goober.  But, it's good stuff :) and worth the time.

  5. I am sad that I didn't like this book more...

  6. I had hoped to participate in this readalong, but never found the time to get the book read. I am pretty much a Tudor maniac, and can imagine that I would enjoy this one. I have heard it's a hefty read, but I am looking forward to it sometime.

  7. I couldn't get through this one, but honestly...I only gave it 50 pages or so. I know the sequel comes out this year so maybe I will try it again before then. 

  8. This is sitting on my bookshelf! I can't wait to read it!

  9. I'm sad too...;)

  10. I'm glad I tackled seems I learn something new every time I read more about the Tudors.

  11. I don't remember those first 50 pages as being the best...I think once Thomas gets away from his father, leaves England and then returns after making himself, is when things really start to speed up.

  12. Go for it, Melissa!

  13. Andi (Estella's Revenge)February 12, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    I'm seriously considering giving this one a go. I need some chunksters for this year, and I think I would looove this (aside from the "he" annoyance you mentioned).