Is there anything better on a long summer afternoon than a lounge chair, a tall glass of iced tea and a heavy-weight historical novel that you cannot put down?
I found myself in just this scenario recently as I finally dived into Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Now, I had tried to read it before, when it first came out a couple of years ago. I just couldn’t get past the first chapter. I was deeply disappointed…the Tudor period is one of my favorites, and here was a multi-award winning novel featuring all the vivid characters of Henry VIII’s dazzling, intriguing court…and I just could not focus on the story or the characters. What was wrong???
Then along came PBS a few months ago with its dark and captivating version of Wolf Hall, starring some of my favorite British actors (I’m lovin’ me some Damian Lewis, even if he is playing Henry VIII as he enters his later, less attractive years!) I became hooked on the series and felt bereft when it ended in May. What was I going to do on Sunday evenings at 10pm?!
I decided to try the book again, so I picked it up with some skepticism. Well, I was unable to put it down this time. And right after I finished it I went straight into its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.
Both novels focus on the principle character of Thomas Cromwell, the low-born lawyer who rose through his wits and energy to become one of the most powerful men in Henry VIII’s court. In most books about the Tudors, especially in fiction, Cromwell is a two-dimensional character—a bully, an opportunist, a scheming villain. But Mantel takes this historical figure and fleshes him out with intelligence and wit; Cromwell becomes a real, actually a sympathetic, human in this novel. Mantel’s take on Tudor history is so different than any other author I have read on this period. The book is populated with names from the history books; in addition to Cromwell and King Henry we find Anne Boleyn, Katheryn of Aragon, the Duke of Norfolk, Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and on and on, each one realized in a slightly different manner than you have ever encountered before.
Do you have to be a Tudorphile to enjoy this book? I have given that some thought…I think it helps to know some of the basic story before you try Wolf Hall. There are dozens of characters, and since most of them are based on real people, having an outline of the facts and at least a glancing acquaintance of who’s who at Henry’s court would help. But I don’t think it is completely necessary. A list of dramatis personae is presented at the beginning of the book, along with a Tudor family tree, which is some help in figuring out “who’s on first.” But even if you are not an expert on Renaissance England, I think you might still enjoy this book. The reason so much has been written about this period, and especially about the scandals of Henry and his six wives, is because it is a fascinating and compelling human story.
Mantel’s books take the story to a new level. Not only are there new interpretations of the characters and a wholly different point of view on well-known events, but the writing has a depth and seriousness that make it worthy of the acclaim the books have received. These books are rich, full of emotion and packed to the brim with great story-telling.
The one complaint I have, is one I share with several reviewers—Mantel’s decision to tell the book from Cromwell’s point of view, but not in a first-person narrative does make the grammar difficult to navigate and leads to some confusion for the reader. Both books are written in the present tense, which I don’t mind, as this lends more tension and immediacy to the narrative. However in Wolf Hall especially, the author continuously uses “he” when referring to Cromwell, and I found myself in the early chapters often being taken out of the story because I was trying to figure out who was talking, or whom the author was talking about. Mantel corrects this flaw in Bring Up the Bodies; clearly she had read some of those reviewers who gave her a stern reprimand about this confusing technique! I hope a warning about this stylistic quirk will help you if you decide to read Wolf Hall. Trust me, it is worth working your way through the first few chapters to get to the heart of the story.
Personally I can’t wait for the third installment of the trilogy. Rumor has it that the title will be The Mirror and the Light and that is might be out some time in 2016…Maybe next summer I will be on that lounge chair with a glass of iced tea and a newly minted final chapter in Hilary Mantel’s version of the story of Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII.