I felt like a 12-year-old reading this. I know it’s not something that means anything to anyone – but I just feel like it needed to be said. When I was 12 I used to read novels with historical characters & settings – which I now find harder to get excited about. Except with Wolf Hall – and it’s all due to the ease, the cursiveness, the…readability of Ms. Mantel’s prose.
Wolf Hall won the Booker in 2009 and since it’s the only nominee I’ve read, I can’t judge whether it’s a deserving winner or not. But it’s an amazingly well written book – with just the right blend of seriousness, wit, humor and a colorful cast of characters. Adding to the list of things I don’t know much about: the historical accuracy of her portrayal (Wikipedia says that her Thomas Cromwell is apparently in stark contrast with another fictional portrait) – but since all these people lived 500 years ago and this is a novel, not a history lesson, I couldn’t care less. The Tudors are a family rich in stories and very fashionable lately it seems, but her point of view is unique because she takes a fairly secondary character (secondary in title, not in actual power) and makes us see events that ended up changing the course of history & Christianity from the front row seat through his eyes.
The world is not run from where he [the earl of Northumberland] thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
Thomas Cromwell (whose more famous descendant Oliver more people are familiar with) is sort of the embodiment of the American dream (“He has no coat of arms and no name, but he believes he is bred to win” – that’s how even the king characterizes him) in the 1500s. A man who rose to influence solely based on his qualities – his intelligence, his cunning and knowledge – would have been a rarity in a time when ancestry and nobility were the only things that mattered, and this (together with his very practical & grounded attitude towards his destiny) makes him a very relatable, modern character. The son of an abusive blacksmith, Cromwell ran away from home at 13 to travel the world and become, in turn, soldier, tradesman, banker, lawyer and finally advisor in all matter to the king. His financial savvy, his ability to read people and attend to their wishes and his knowing advice make him an indispensable figure at court (at least until 1540 – but the book only covers his life until 1535, the year of Thomas More’s execution) and instrumental in Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the separation of the Anglican Church. In 650 pages Ms. Mantel chronicles the 8 years it took to get here (or rather, the 8 years it took to get from the right hand man of a fallen-from-grace cardinal to the right hand man of the king) – and keeps you interested and engaged every step of the way.
There are lots of reviews out there ready to give you actual information (unlike this post): The Guardian, Washington Post, The New Yorker, NY Times – so pick whichever you like; I’m just gonna say I loved this trip to medieval England and I’m actually looking forward to part 2 (which apparently is in works)😀