‘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.
This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 but yet it lurked on my TBR unread for many a long, shameful year. Then I discovered I was not alone! Another much-admired book reviewer on Twitter came out as a fellow shirker, then slowly, more and more of us came out of the shadows and owned our ignominy publicly. We then decided to do a buddy read of the book to put our chagrin firmly behind us.
The read started at the beginning of April, and slowly people began to drop out. I totally understand why this happened. This book is not an easy read. Mantel uses a narrative construct that is not easy to navigate and is a little confusing until you get used to it, which makes the book a read that requires concentration and application, it is not something you can just skim. Unfortunately, this read started just as we were entering lockdown in the UK in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, we were all trying to adjust to this completely alienating new reality and, for many, this was not the time to be tussling with this tome.
I actually felt the opposite. Reading has always been my respite in times of trouble and, during lockdown, I escaped even deeper into fictional worlds, consuming novels at a record rate (I have now read 90 books this year.) Being able to lose myself in a book that demanded my full attention was a welcome distraction from the terrible news that was hitting us day by day, and it returned the novel rewarded me tenfold.
I have always been fascinated by the Plantagenet and Tudor periods of history, and have read a lot of historical fiction set in this period, but Mantel’s book goes way beyond anything I have read before. She dives so deeply into the psyche of Cromwell, revealing to us the whole panoply of life in Tudor England through his eyes, that it feels like a lived experience. The book is written in the present tense, as if you are actually in that time, and it is very effective. Her writing gives the man a humanity that is missing from his portrayals in a lot of history books, and it has given me a totally different perspective on his role in this period.
Her research is obviously extensive and meticulous, and she feeds the book with exquisite detail and texture that is just delightful to absorb. This is a book that you can actually FEEL through all of your senses. Although it is slow moving, it is curiously addictive. Every time I picked it up I felt transported and was loathe to put it down and return to the real world. I was so absorbed that this monster of a novel felt too short, and I am so glad that there are two other novels coming for me to enjoy. I haven’t started them yet, as I am still revelling in the afterglow of the first book and am going to delay the gratification of starting book two until I can bear it no longer.
I know this book is not going to be for everyone. Some will find it too ponderous, and the slow richness of the writing that I adored will be the very thing that discourages others. Mantel’s prose and use of ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell throughout, rather than calling him by his name, can be confusing at times (particularly as there are so many Thomases in the book) and requires a level of concentration that can prove tiring, especially when you are going through a time of stress. It is a book that needs a particular moment, a particular frame of mind to appreciate. I think she is a writer that may seem to lack some warmth for some people, focused as she is on the historical detail, her writing can come off as dispassionate, which may be this books downfall for some. I can understand why people might fail to engage with Cromwell as protagonist to a degree that they cannot care about his story. But, if you can get past this, there is no doubt at all that this book is a masterpiece of historical fiction that will give the persistent reader a whole new insight into this period of history.
I bloody loved it and I owe huge thanks to Jules Swain for finally getting me to pick it up.
If you would like to give it a go yourself, you can buy a copy of Wolf Hall here, along with books two and three of the trilogy, which are all out now.
About the Author
Hilary Mantel is the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for her best-selling novels, Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. Wolf Hall has been translated into 36 languages, Bring Up the Bodies into 31 languages, and sales for both books have reached over 5 million copies worldwide. She is the author of fourteen books, including A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black, and the memoir Giving Up the Ghost. In 2014 she was appointed DBE.
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