Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

WOW! What a well-crafted book that was. Wolf Hall is the fictionalized account of Henry VIII's break with the church in Rome and his obsessive desire to have a male heir to the throne. This story has been told countless times, but what sets this Man Booker Prize winner apart from other accounts is that it chronicles the events from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell was a self-made man who extricated himself from an abusive childhood, joined the French army because France was where wars were fought, memorized the Bible, and learned numerous languages. He returned to England and became a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey. The two had a close and symbiotic relationship until the Cardinal and King Henry became embroiled in the Supremacy struggle as Henry sought to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Cromwell witnesses that Wolsey will not broker this divorce and ingratiates himself with Henry. He becomes the king's most trusted adviser and through his machinations brought about much of the changes (reforms) in both the political and religious realms.

Mantel's novel brings together all the players in this historical time period. For the casual reader and even those steeped in the scholarship of this time, there is a cast of characters for all the venues in the book. From Cromwell's beginning in Putney, to his Austin Friars neighborhood in London, to Westminster, the court, France, and Wolf Hall - home to the Seymours, she identifies those who so impacted the course of English history in the 1520s - 30s. Henry's loss of interest in Catherine, his spurning of their daughter Mary, and his infatuation with Anne Boleyn serve as a backdrop to all of Cromwell's actions as he covets and wields power. As he did with Wolsey, Cromwell does philosophic battle with Thomas More, author of
Utopia, who believes in the papal supremacy. And we all know how that ended.

The novel's impact is heightened as it is told in present tense with flashbacks. Mantel has infused humor and great description into the story. One notable passage is Henry's reaction to the birth of Elizabeth, the princess and future queen. All had expected her to be a him and Henry laments her birth: "The princess, unswaddled, had been placed on cushions at Anne's feet: an ugly, purple, grizzling knot of womankind, with an upstanding ruff of pale hair and a habit of kicking up her gown to display her most unfortunate feature."

One of the most interesting secondary characters was Hans Holbein, the court painter. Holbein was commissioned to paint the important people of his era. His political beliefs can be analyzed through his paintings. Compare his treatment of both Cromwell and More. I was a little amused to read his critiques of Lucas Cranach, a German painter close to Martin Luther. Cranach is my great grandfather - to the 12th power.

This is one of those books that you don't want to end. But then you realize that it will be one that you will revisit in the years to come. An absolutely wonderful read.

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