12/02/2012

BOOK REVIEW: WOLF HALL - A TALE OF POWER, POLITICS & LUST


(from the blurb) "Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning," says Thomas More, "and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money." 

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the Pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor. Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. 


Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.


My musings

Thomas Cromwell was a man capable of writing a contract and taming a wild falcon, of drawing a map and settle a fight down, of furnishing a house and bribing a jury. He was the Machiavellian architect of Henry VIII's kingdom and master of the Tudors' destiny. 


Henry VIII
He is the protagonist Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (the title refers to the name of the residence of the Seymours) and from his point of view we witness the well-known facts:  Cromwell  was the man King Henry VIII  trusted  to get to marry Anne Boleyn and get rid of Catherine of Aragon. We watch and take part in all the whims  of king and mistress from the smart, detached, strategic point of view of a power-hungry man. Cromwell is the emblem of a self - made man who thanks only to his incredible intellectual skills rose from very humble origins to be the politician who marked the new course of the English Church which led to the separation from the Church of Rome and from papal authority, the dissolution of the monasteries, and to the establishing of the king as the Supreme Head of the Church of England
Honestly, what still disturbs me is that all that was for ... a woman. Not for the love of a woman but in order to  accomplish  lusty wishes, which drove many others of Henry VIII's political decisions even later on. Mind you, I'm not a Puritan nor such a conservative but yet the fact disturbs me quite a lot.



Anne Boleyn
I usually try to read any book with great respect and rarely leave my task uncompleted, even when I don't like it. It may happen though that I can greatly appreciate works of almost unknown indie writers and be deeply disappointed by best selling authors and their pluriawarded works. It's not a rule, but it has happened   more than once. You know, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", hence completely subjective. This is why I had to rationally recognize the value of this well- crafted historical novel giving a new perspective on well-known facts but I couldn't be involved in the narration of those events nor sympathize or care for any of the characters. It was a totally unemotional reading: me following the events I already knew and leafing through the pages with very little curiosity or interest in what was going to happen.
I usually read and love historical fiction to see the humanity behind history, while reading this novel was more or less as exciting as reading Antonia Fraser's remarkable essay, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Can all this be due to my very little sympathy for Henry VIII? 


However, to get to a conclusion, I must recognize that Henry VIII's age was a time were only unscrupled people could  survive and only until they were in disfavour with the king, a tough period to live in and Hilary Mantel  describes it with precision and historical accuracy. She describes the rise of Anne Boleyn's star as parallel to Thomas Cromwell's. And that's a totally new take on those events. The story ends almost abruptly on the day of Thomas More's execution. But we know the it goes on. There's a sequel coming out soon.
Cromwell - The Historical figure (from BBC History)
Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell was an English statesman and adviser to Henry VIII, responsible for drafting the legislation that formalised England's break with Rome. He was born in Putney in southwest London in around 1485, the son of a cloth worker. He spent much of his early adulthood in Europe as a soldier, accountant and merchant, but returned to England around 1512 and studied law. In 1520, in a pivotal career move, he became legal secretary for Cardinal Wolsey who was in service to Henry VIII. When Wolsey fell out of favour with the king, Cromwell survived and in 1523 he became a member of parliament.
Cromwell earned the king's confidences and rose swiftly. By 1532 he was the king's chief minister. He was a leading figure amongst those who suggested Henry make himself head of the English church. Cromwell presided over the dissolution of the monasteries with great efficiency and as a reward was created earl of Essex in 1540. Cromwell was deeply unpopular in England. In 1536, Catholics in the north of England rebelled in a series of uprisings known as the Pilgrimage of Grace and one of the targets of their anger was Thomas Cromwell.
In 1540, Cromwell persuaded Henry VIII to agree to marry Anne of Cleves, in the hope of securing the support of the north German princes against the Holy Roman Emperor. The marriage was a disaster and the alliance failed. Henry withdrew his support from Cromwell, who was charged with treason. He was executed at the Tower of London on 28 July 1540. 

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

As you know, I liked WH very much, and possibly for the reasons you disliked the most. Sometimes, when I don't have to sympathize with any of the characters, unemotional reading makes me better aware of the story, the style, the plot and the dialogues... and I enjoyed it!
This is a well written 'tale of power, politics and lust', in this precise order. Unlike you, I don't think the whole Boleyn story is a mere question of lust: there is much more - power and money above all - behind Henry's fatal decision, that Anne was used as a pretext, and soon discharged. Not that I sympathyze with her, mind you! :-)
Have a lovely Sunday, hopefully sunny like here,
xx K/V

MG S said...

Yes, @K/V, we0ve been discussing this book quite enough, haven't we? I too am sure that Henry earned so much more from the divorce question than Anne's "complete" favour. But it doesn't come out so clearly in this version of the story.
Timid sunshine here.
A good Sunday to you too!

Gregory House said...

At the present moment I live a breath Tudor history and fiction, so I approached Wolf Hall with a certain amount of interest since its protagonist Cromwell is a key player in several of my novels. I picked this weighty tome up and slowly and steadily plowed into it. It wasn't an easy task or very pleasurable, I didn't found any intriguing takes on the characters or find them particular human. Rather on the whole they appeared to be to be historical cardboard cutouts with only the most basic motivations and drives. It may be considered high quality literature but I found it dull and boring. Sorry but as they say reading is a personal experience.

MG S said...

@Gregory House
Thanks Gregory, for sharing with us. My thoughts exactly. But, as you wrote, reading is a very personal experience.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I felt much the same way as you when I read this one. In fact, I'm glad someone else didn't love it because I was starting to think maybe I missed something as everyone else has loved it. I thought it was too long and like you found it hard to connect to the characters.

MG S said...

@Sam (Tiny Library)
I'm relieved to read your comments here because I expected I'd get loads of praising for the novel from people disagreeing with me, instead. I know both people who loved it and people who couldn't get to the end of it.
But it's so interesting to share and exchange our diffent opinions, isn't it?
Thank you, Sam. Enjoy your Sunday!

anarchist said...

Hi,

Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

I recently put out an ebook of my writing, called The New Death and others. It's a collection of short pieces, mostly dark fantasy.

I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog.

If so, please email me: news@apolitical.info. Let me know what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy.

You can download a sample from the ebook's page on Smashwords:

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/92126

I'm also happy to do interviews, guest posts, or giveaways. Just let me know what you'd prefer.

Yours,
James.

lunarossa said...

Hi MG, I had some problems reading this book and I found the writing a bit obscure and confusing. But I'm glad I persevered because it gave me an insight into a Tudor character I uttery disliked but at the same time I did not know very much about. I still dislike him and I'm sure I will never find a novel about him remotely fascinating. Ciao. A.xx

MG S said...

@lunarossa
Hi A., thanks for sharing your thoughts. Just like you I couldn't relate to any of the characters, especially the protagonist and I also persevered getting to the end/not an end of this novel with a great effort.

Rose City Reader said...

I can understand your reaction to WH, although I liked the book myself. The lawyer in me was fascinated by Cromwell's role as a legal adviser and, in particular, the way he used the legislature (Parliament) to accomplish Henry's ends.

I found your blog on Tiny Library's Literary Blog Directory and am so pleased that I did.

<a href="www.rosecityreader.com>Rose City Reader</a>

MG S said...

Welcome on Fly High @Rose City Reader! Sam's friends are my friends.
I'm glad you brought a different opinion to the discussion and thanks for sharing.

rainakochan said...

your explanation about cromwell are helpful I used to confuse the cromwell period being before the regency era before.I know it is a shame ;) But since i 'm stduying it at university and by myself things are clearer !
I definetly like reading moments from tudors era and stuarts

This book looks great :))) thank you for sharing

rainakochan said...

He (henry VIII) definetly had a hobbies...excuting people .

MG S said...

@rainakochan

You are confusing Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Puritans in the Civil War, the one who had Charles I executed in 1649, with Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) who was a state politician during Henry VIII's rule. The latter is the protagonist of this book.

servetus said...

Gosh, I loved this book and wish I could have written it. I think the point is that it's not supposed to be about Henry + Anne, etc. It's a reflection on the nature of time in Tudor England that happens to take Henry + Anne as its topic. Anyway. I know it wasn't everyone's cup of tea.

Maria Grazia said...

@servetus
Well, as I've already written before, I'm really glad when different opinions are proposed in the discussion to a post. I'm sure there are many people who enjoyed reading Wolf Hall. And I'm happy to read their impressions and compare them to mine. Thanks for dropping by and contributing to the discussion.

Canada said...

This is a novel on the subjective mode. It's told in the usual third person, however, the incessant use of the "he" to describe the protagonist Thomas Cromwell forces the reader to pay attention and follow the novel as s/he her/himself views the action developing from Cromwell's viewpoint - something, in written terms, as Velazquez's Las Meninas, where what is seem is what the sitter himself would be seeing. What Ms. Mantell wants us to do is to react to what is happening as if we were Cromwell, the common man caught in the whirlwind of his time and reacting to it according to its own lights. Ms. Mantell's political point is, quite naturally, conservative, as she takes up the cudgels for a partisan of legality like Cromwell and makes no effort to conceal her ("his"?) loathing of an utopian and ideologue like Thomas More.