Keeping the wolf from the door

Thomas Cromwell, as portrayed by his friend Hans Holbein
February has been a bit of a month for historical novels. I've already raved about the wonderful Lord of the silver bow, a re-telling of the Troy history / legend; and having just finished one historical blockbuster felt that I must carry on to another that has been sitting on my shelf for far too long - Hilary Mantel's acclaimed Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall has got a lot in common with my favourite Mantel novel the previously reviewed A place of greater safety. Both novels are set in turbulent times, periods when the world is changing rapidly, and in which ordinary folk are swept up in major historical events. Place of greater safety is set during the French Revolution and looks at the men, who were the movers and shakers of their time - focusing especially on those not particularly sympathetic characters - Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins. That Mantel makes you sympathise with them and their families shows what a great writer she is. What is important about these three men is that not only were they swept along by events, they were also the moulders of history; and it is this which gives it a commonality with the great Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is set at a critical moment in British history. Henry VIII has fallen out of love with Katherine of Aragon, and, desperate for a son and heir, has begun to pursue Anne Boleyn. His desire for Anne will have huge implications for the fabric of British society and for its religious beliefs. As Cardinal Wolsey, unable to get Henry the divorce he craves, begins his descent from power; a young man from an ordinary background with a definite nous for politics starts his meteoric rise. The man is Thomas Cromwell.

I must say that until reading Wolf Hall I really hadn't liked Thomas Cromwell very much. He's often portrayed (this may be partly the fault of Robert Bolt's A man for all seasons) as a spin-doctor with an eye to the main chance. There's been the inference that he stabbed Wolsey in the back, was largely responsible for the demise of Thomas More, and is generally more style than substance. Mantel turns any preconceptions robustly on their head. Cromwell was quite astounding - from a humble background, he travelled throughout Europe, speaking several languages fluently. He was a reformer in all senses of the word from politics to religion; and cleverly balanced the dangerous amphitheatre of the Court. Henry VIII comes across as a weaker man than he is sometimes portrayed, while the court traffickings are exposed for the dangerous games that they are. Thomas More is here portrayed much less sympathetically than is usual. I found this interesting as it exposed a whole new side of More that I hadn't really been aware of before. More is, of course, renowned, and justly, as the man who refused to compromise his religious beliefs by swearing an oath that he found untenable. This rigidity of purpose, although perhaps admirably heroic, is seen as less than heroic when he is portrayed earlier in his life as a torturer of Protestants.

As in Place of greater safety Mantel brings this historical world vibrantly to life. A world that was on the cusp of entering the modern world, but was still enshrouded in layers of superstition and strange belief systems. Against this odd background, that is like our world, but essentially other, Mantel places the very human characters, their aspirations and beliefs. It is truly a total immersion in a different world. And, yes, difficult as the morality is sometimes, I did find myself rooting for the Cromwell faction, for their hopes and aspirations, living at a time when there was potentially boundless opportunity, and one slip could cost you a one way ticket to the scaffold. I can't wait for the promised second volume supposedly to be published later this year.


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