Saturday, April 04, 2009

Review of "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

This review, jointly created by Clare and myself, is posted on Amazon here. (3 stars).


Five hundred years ago, in 1509, the 17 year old Henry VIII and his new Spanish bride Catherine ascended the English throne. Catherine managed to produce the future Queen Mary in 1516, but subsequently failed to provide a male heir. By 1532, after great difficulties Henry had finally managed to have his marriage with Catherine annulled, and went on to marry Anne Boleyn, the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth. Anne also failed to produce the necessary male heir and was executed in 1536 in favour of wife number three, Jane Seymour.

Henry’s desperate attempts to extricated himself from Catherine – efforts involving Pope Clement VII and his captor at the time, Emperor Charles V - were mediated by his top advisors: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his later replacement, Sir Thomas More, and his successor, Thomas Cromwell (in 1532).

‘Wolf Hall’ spans the period from the removal of Cardinal Wolsey from the court in 1529 to the eclipse of Anne Boleyn after 1534. The machinations of Anne in her endeavours to become Queen are central to the book, Henry appearing only in cameo. Our conduit into the court is Master Thomas Cromwell, a loyal servant of Cardinal Wolsey and his right-hand man and confidante. He has been apprenticed to a master tactician and when Wolsey dies, Cromwell transfers his skills to aiding Henry in achieving what Wolsey had failed to deliver, a divorce from Catherine and a legal marriage to Anne.

The first tranche of this book enchanted me as I was wholly transported to Tudor London. The description of Cromwell’s family and work-life is rich in detail and characterisation. The scourges of the age, which touched his domestic life, are treated with poignancy but not over-dramatised: there is much here to value. Wolsey’s persecution is movingly evoked, but with his death the energy and pace of the novel slacken and when the action moves to the court and begins to focus on Anne, the essential tautness is lost and the book disappoints.

The potential for revelation of Anne Boleyn’s character and motivation is a missed opportunity. Her portrayal is two-dimensional: her ambition and vindictiveness unleavened with redeeming characteristics. In common with Henry she wants a son to settle the succession, her daughter being despatched into the country to the care of courtiers. She is really too bad to be true.

As a counterpoint to her awfulness, Cromwell is painted as a superman figure: linguist, international merchant and financier, deploying intelligence, diligence and humanity as far as is compatible with being Henry’s enforcer. He coaxes and cajoles Queen Catherine, her daughter Mary and Sir Thomas More with advice to submit to the will of the king. This good advice is never acted upon.

To please his monarch he fleeces vulnerable members of the aristocracy before turning his attention to the clergy. Cromwell grows in influence and wealth while nature thwarts Anne. Of course, he eventually gets his comeuppance (executed in 1540).

The historical facts underlying this novel are well-outlined in this competent novel, but a proper exploration of the complexity of Anne Boleyn could have made the basis of an outstanding book.