I finished the Wolf Hall trilogy

I need a rest from books for a bit.

There’s no mystery why Hilary Mantel’s first two novels in the series won a Booker prize. The Mirror and The Light carries on what is essentially one giant novel, chronicling Thomas Cromwell’s life from his attempt to help Cardinal Wolsey extract King Henry VIII from his marriage to Catharine of Aragon, through to Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, her execution, Henry’s third marriage to Jane Seymour, her subsequent death (complications from child birth), and finally (for Cromwell if not for Henry) the King’s failed marriage to Anne of Cleves (aka Anna von Kleve).

The Tudor period looms large in English national mythology of greatness and Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I are two of the most fictionalised and dramatised British monarchs (Queen Victoria being the third but Elizabeth II is getting higher in the charts I’d imagine). Although I often read Booker prize winners, when Wolf Hall won I was originally uninterested. Another book about Henry and Anne Boleyn? Is there seriously anything new to say about all that? Turns out there was a lot of new things to say about it, and by employing a story people know at least in sketch form, Mantel could focus on an aspect that makes the Tudor period fascinating.

Mantel’s version of Cromwell is a modern man, not a good man or a virtuous man but a character who would fit directly into a story about an ambitious corporate manager aiming to be the COO of a major multinational. That he is trapped in a world in which Popes and feudal rules still matter and where he must navigate the whims of the vain and self-obsessed Henry only highlights the kind of corporate absurdity in which he exists. The tasks he sets himself are essentially impossible:

  • Ensure Henry VIII has a male heir.
  • Keep England’s finances secure.
  • Shift England from Catholicism to Protestantism.
  • Avoid either the French or the Spanish/Holy Roman Empire invading.
  • Avoid being burned to death as a heretic.
  • Keep the powerful English noble families in line.
  • Stay in power (to do all of the above) without getting executed as a traitor

He does, in the end, manage some of this. England doesn’t get invaded, mainly because Spain and France have better things to do. He does get his head chopped off, but even that is a bit of a win given that he wasn’t of noble birth and also given that being burned alive was always a likely option. His son Gregory did not fall out of royal favour when Thomas was executed. His nephew and protege Richard Cromwell also survived unscathed from Thomas’s fall from favour and Richard’s grandson Oliver returned the favour and had a king’s head chopped off.

So Thomas Cromwell acts as a kind of metaphor for the growing power and wealth of a non-aristocratic class in Tudor England. Mantel’s version of Cromwell casts him as a survivor of a violent, bullying father amid the poverty of south-west London and from there advancing himself as a soldier in Europe, then a banker’s servant in Italy and then a merchant in the Netherlands before returning, already wealthier, to London. In the first book he is already the scheming right-hand man of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey by the end of the final book he is the most effectively powerful man in England and ennobled as an Earl.

It is a hideous and cruel circus performance of spinning plates and diplomatic half-truths. Mantel portrays him as largely trying to find ways around having people executed but even here Cromwell seems more motivated by concern that Henry will regret later having people killed. As his great-grand nephew might say, this is a “warts and all” depiction but also a deeply humanising one. Mantel shifts even within paragraphs between first-person and third-person perspectives as if the whole story is Cromwell himself narrating but unsure of his own role as narrator. Time jumps back to past events in his life as events cause him to recall moments from his childhood, youth or his rise to wealth, creating a non-linear biography of the time before the events in the book.

I listened to the book as an audiobook and it was easily the best adaptation to an audio book I’ve listened to so far. Narrated by the actor Ben Miles, who had played Cromwell in the RSC theatre adaptation of Wolf Hall, it was in many ways closer to an audio play rather than a simple book reading. What it also brought out was the wit and humour in Mantel’s writing. Obviously, the jokes that arise are somewhat dark given half the time it is a question of who is going to be dragged away to the Tower.

Even so, it is an exhausting story. Masterfully written and creates a (misleading obviously) sense of intimacy with a historical figure, which is such a deep characterisation that you feel Mantel could drop Cromwell into any fictional setting and have him size up the situation and take control.

5 thoughts on “I finished the Wolf Hall trilogy

  1. I enjoyed the first two immensly, but the 3rd one just seems too big… (plus I also dread having to write yet another lenghty analysis of its philosophical core)

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    1. I do sympathise. But it really is excellent. Not quite as good as the first two I think (cf. almost any “third book” of a trilogy that was too big for three books) but that’s like saying that I’d prefer a three-star Michelin chef to a two-star one.

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