“Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel
Oh, really, why narrow it down to just children? Five hundred years ago in King Henry VIII’s England, cruelty abounded and it wasn’t reserved just for children. It took me forever to get through this remarkable book; partly because I found myself rushing to source books to place all the many characters, but also because this book delivers so many hard punches that I needed to take the occasional break.
“Wolf Hall” has been reviewed brilliantly by many others. It is a magnificent book on many levels and hard to encapsulate in one place, so I’m not even going to try. But I do want to say my bit about a book that put me through the emotional wringer as much as it did. And continues to.
The book opens brutally. Young Thomas Cromwell is being kicked and stomped into a bloody pile by his father. Opening line: “So now get up.” His father roars and bellows. And we are hooked from the first page. It is when young Thomas decides that in the interest of self-preservation he must run away in search of a war (clearly a war is preferable to living with his father) and meets up with some Dutch cloth merchants who are shocked at his battered face, that he hears a different perspective on English parenting:
He is surprised. Are there people in the world who are not cruel to their children? For the first time, the weight in his chest shifts a little; he thinks, there could be other places, better.
When next we meet Thomas, he is working for Cardinal Wolsey, second only to the King in power and authority in England. King Henry VIII is already trying to get his annulment from that pesky first wife, and Anne Boleyn is impatiently biding her time waiting for her wedding day. So how does a blacksmith’s son from Putney, who spent his youth as a vagabond and mercenary, emerge as the Cardinal’s right-hand man? Well, he is smart. Genius-level street smart. This is a man whose sheer force of will, keen intelligence, and Machiavellian tactics overcomes obstacles that we can’t really even begin to comprehend. And we know we are in for an exhilarating ride along with Cromwell as he comes to the attention of the King and eventually ends up the Royal Fix-it Man.
Mantel also gives us Cromwell, the husband and father. He is warming his son’s shirt by the fire one morning. His wife snaps at him to stop – the boy may grow used to it. Oh, Mantel is one heck of a good writer dropping little tidbits like that into all the political mayhem. You feel these characters were real human beings, not the stock figures that populate so much historical fiction. This is not one of those books which you can read with one eye while watching TV with the other. Oh no, this book demands full-attention and deserves it.
There is a five-page “Cast of Characters”, thankfully, because it seems every other young man in England in those days was named Thomas. Which brings me to Thomas More – Cromwell’s arch-rival. Here is where the book really got interesting. Any impressions I had of these two characters – which were basically Thomas More: good guy; Thomas Cromwell: bad guy – were completely upended by Mantel. She brings these characters to life brilliantly and never for a moment does she gloss over the terrible things these men did to stay in power, our saintly Thomas More included.
Burning at the stake? Mantel describes this almost default punishment for heretics so vividly that it made me ill….and angry….and just disgusted by all of them. History isn’t for sissies, I guess, but this group of religious fanatics was just unspeakably cruel. Among the many who died this way is a priest named John Frith, Oxford educated, brilliant, and brave, who disputes the nature of Purgatory and transubstantiation, and is therefore burned at the stake by order of Thomas More. Here Mantel sums up the horror in one perfect sentence:
At Smithfield Frith is being shoveled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.
Dear God. What kind of people were these? Well, I guess like most zealots, they were confident in their rectitude. Here Thomas More justifies his regular pastime of torturing heretics:
More says it does not matter if you lie to heretics, or trick them into a confession. They have no right to silence, even if they know speech will incriminate them; if they will not speak, then break their fingers, burn them with irons, hang them up by their wrists. It is legitimate, and indeed More goes further, it is blessed.
Ah, I know I am letting my 21st century sensibilities get the better of me, but this book really shook me up. I’m not sure I have the inner fortitude to read book two in the Cromwell trilogy, Bring Up The Bodies, but I can see why so many have. Both books have won the prestigious Booker Prize.
I think I will go immerse myself in some P. G. Wodehouse now. Bertie and Jeeves might be just the antidote for a little too much Tom and Henry. Therapy, don’t you know?