Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)

I had a love affair with Thomas Cromwell for several weeks, nearly two months, and I’m sorry we had to part ways (Mr. Smithereens, you needn’t be afraid, everything will be revealed in a second). I lived with him and shared his most intimate moments:

I was there when he was a humble boy, beaten black and blue by his drunk father. I was there when he came back from Antwerp with a fine knowledge of business and of the new faith developing throughout Christendom. I saw him with his family, in his daily errands for Cardinal Wolsey, in his grief over the death of his beloved daughters. I smelled his wet woolen coat in the rain, drank bad beer with spies in Calais, ordered fine food to dine and wine ambassadors, admired with him the beauty of a tapestry featuring queen Bathsheba under the guise of a woman he once knew. I was with him in disgrace when cardinal Wolsey was brought low, I followed every step of his seemingly limitless ascent until he was the most powerful man in England beside the King, or perhaps even more powerful than the king. 1535 London was as vivid, full of lights, smells, noises as 2011 Paris. It was an extraordinary experience.

I must praise this book as high as the many reviewers before me. All the more as I rarely read historical novels. This is one of the best books I read in 2011 so far. No wonder it got prizes and praises everywhere.

Wait, no! Everywhere in the English world, that is.

The main problem of the book isn’t the book, it’s the reader. Me. And the French education system, in particular the history curriculum. The problem is that I know so little in real life about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, that I feel cheated out of the pleasure of reading Wolf Hall to the fullest of its content.

The extent of my knowledge of Henry VIII is the information on leaflets handed out to tourists visiting English monuments. That, and the first season of the TV series “The Tudors” with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which has avowedly taken many liberties with the facts (even I got that impression). So it’s decisively not enough to judge if Mantel herself too liberties (the web says no), and how did the events turn out after the end of the book (we are left just after Thomas More’s execution, when Cromwell is at the top of his career… but what with the rest of his life? What with Boleyn? We see her accession to power, not her downfall – yes, I am aware she was beheaded eventually).

Nowhere in my school years was Henry VIII presented (or only his name in a list of kings), nor Cromwell ever evoked. And that, neither in history class or in English class (we were too deep into irregular verbs to care about much else). I only started to know something (anything) about foreign countries’ histories from 1870 onwards. Before 1870, world events didn’t exist much (apparently, the rest of the world was very calm while we French were quite busy with our kings and revolutions). When something happened in a foreign country, it was exclusively as a consequence of or an origin to French events. And that, I notice, only where we French played a positive (blameless) role. I never really understood until well into my adulthood that the French revolution had some impact in other countries, and why Napoleon was very much hated and dreaded in some parts of the world. I wasn’t taught about the Reformation but for its consequences in France, and nowhere else. The world vision this official curriculum gives (gave?) to children is so French-centric it is ridiculous.

Coming back to Cromwell and Wolf Hall, you’ll understand my frustration. I read reviews and discovered that Hilary Mantel had taken quite an unusual stand in showing Cromwell under a positive light, while making Thomas More a heartless religious fanatic. I wasn’t even conscious that her view is innovative, because I had no preconception whatsoever of More and Cromwell (except that Thomas More is played by Jeremy Northam in the series, and I love this actor – ok, this is fully subjective). I took everything at first degree, and I loved it.

Now, I certainly would need to hit the books on English history… Mmh, at my age, my motivation for studying has considerably dropped (all the more kudos to Stephanie for her new degree!), so perhaps I’ll settle for the second season of the Tudors? Or perhaps, someone can please point out a good historical novel that would cover the following years (Wolf Hall 2, the sequel??)?


13 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009)

  1. I enjoyed your post and join you in being and admirer of Wolf Hall. I also join you in frustration with school history which, for an American, is mostly American history, with some related English history. French history and developments are an afterthought, although the French Revolution and Napoleon get some attention.

    My prior knowledge of Cromwell was mostly through the movie A Man for All Seasons, in which he is the villain and More the hero. You will find lots of Henry the VIII in English literature. I understand that the author is writing a sequel to Wolf Hall and I certainly hope she is.

    Regarding religion, I thought the conflicts between the established powers and new developments were a powerful theme in the book. Again, English literature was strongly influenced by the English translations of the Bible which began to appear during this period. I have posted on that: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/wolf-hall-dangerous-books/.

  2. Like SilverSeason, I think the reason reviewers commented on the positive portrayal of Cromwell is because of his portrayal in A Man for All Seasons, which places him in, um, less than positive lights… It’s a stark difference, perhaps a little less black-white in terms of hero versus villain.

    Wolf Hall is definitely one of the stand-out books I’ve read in the past few years. In the weeks following my read, I felt like literature was almost ruined for me – everything seemed a little dimmer, had less flavor… The amount of history in the book sent me back to one of my favorite subjects (history) and I’ve been relearning a lot of those forgotten facts.

    As for a sequel… how about Wolf Hall‘s actual sequel? It’s in the works!

    • Bbliobio, I totally relate to your impression that other books compare unfavorably to Wolf Hall! I enjoyed the nuance of Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell. He is ambitious and aspires to be rich and powerful, but we get to learn the reasons behind it.

  3. Glad you loved it – it’s still on my life-long top five list. And if it’s any comfort my British history is very thin. I was happy to ignore what other writers have done with the era and just float down Mantel’s river of history.

    Now we just have to wait for number two. Not that I’m impatient …

    • Life-long top five? What about the 4 others?? That’s indeed comforting that I’m not the only one struggling with English history. But a novel is a great place to learn, if it’s dependable!

  4. I have this book waiting to be read. I have heard so many good things about it. I can’t say I know much about Cromwell either. In America we get mostly American history and world history is bits and pieces that have some tangential relation to something that happened in America. Thanks for the kudos! I love learning new things and should I ever find myself pursuing another degree history is high on my list of possibles.

    • My guess is that you’ll love it! Every country’s history programs seem very centered on themselves, but still I wonder if we can’t do any better, or any different. It’s a shame to wait until university to discover that the world is indeed connected and that interesting events also happened overseas!

  5. If you had any idea of how tall my “I want to read this” pile is (and I bet yours is equally as tall, so you probably can imagine) you will understand when I say I have had this and want to read it, too. I am like you, however, and have only a periperhal knowledge of Cromwell (thanks for the tip–had no idea this was innovative as Cromwell is not often shown in a good light) and the sterotype of Henry VIII. I’m a little intimidated by the size and the subject matter, even though I do like historical fiction. So, yes, I want to read this, too. Maybe this summer…after the Boyd book??

    • Don’t be intimidated by the subject, there’s only the size to contend with. But I daresay it’s a perfect summer read, because it takes you far, far away from your routine. Give it a try!

  6. Pingback: 2011 Stats and Best « Smithereens

  7. Pingback: Baaaack! With Booooks! « Smithereens

  8. Pingback: Seven! | Smithereens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s