Hilary Mantel’s recent death prompted me to pick up Wolf Hall her epic 16th century fictional portrait of Henry VIII’s turbulent court. Thomas Cromwell, a man of humble beginnings rose through perseverance and ambition to become a political fixer and ruthless servant to the king. It is through Cromwell’s third person POV, with his wit and intelligence, that we travel the thirty-five years of English and European history.
Cromwell had a hand in all the important matters of Henry VIII – both personal and professional. He was central in trying to bring about the annulment of Henry’s marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to clear the way for him to marry Anne Boleyn. His political maneuverings were key to the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism and Henry’s desire to separate the Church of England from the authority of Rome.
The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh
As with all great epics Wolf Hall is abundant with intrigue, betrayal and bloody battles, but an easy read it is not. The prose is sophisticated and eloquent but the cast is large and the narrative so rich in complexity it requires your full attention to keep across who is who. The more you know about the political history of the time, the easier it will be for you to follow.
Wolf Hall is a novel about the old world but it also shines a light on contemporary concerns such as religious extremism, government abuse of authority, separation of church and state, the wealth-poverty gap and all the exploitation that divide entails, torture, and national conflicts driven by private motivations. Perhaps humanity has not changed that much…