I started to read this as part of the read-a-long hosted by Coffee and a Book Chick; the launch post explaining why it has taken me so long to get to this book is here. And I started with the best of intentions but, you know what sometimes happens, you aren’t really in the mood for that sort of book at that time, or other distractions come along, or you get into a bit of a reading slump. So I stopped.
But I always intended to go back to Wolf Hall; I must have done because I swept up the sequel in hardback when it came out, and I’m not daft enough to do that if I don’t intend to do the whole thing, am I? (Rhetorical). And this year, because I’ve been in a good place in terms of my reading I picked it up again and was hooked. I got, at the second time of asking, why so many people love this and why it won the Booker. It is simply magnificent.
I’ve said elsewhere that I’ve got a bit of a girl crush on Mantel, since seeing her interviewed in a BBC profile. That doesn’t mean that I believe that she can do no wrong. The recent controversy over what she may or may not have said about the Duchess of Cambridge was entirely manufactured by some elements of the press, but she did set herself up for it whether deliberately or not its difficult to tell. (By the way I thought her speech, which I read in the London Review of Books, was thought-provoking and I was very cross indeed with the personal nature of some of the attacks on her which largely proved her point.)
But back to Wolf Hall. This is the first in a projected trilogy which covers the life of Thomas Cromwell, an adviser initially to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII himself, who assists the King in his divorce from Katharine of Aragon who has failed to give him a surviving male heir, and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. I shall declare an interest which I’ve mentioned elsewhere I’m sure that my degree is in modern history and the sixteenth century is my thing (my dissertation was on Philip II of Spain as King of England during his marriage to Mary Tudor). So I always read fiction set in the period with a tiny wee bit of trepidation. Of course here I needn’t have worried. The factual stuff is all accurate and the speculation is plausible and convincing, so I was very happy being swept up in a convincing recreation of the period.
Mantel has made Cromwell a sympathetic of not wholly likeable person and the sadness in his private life gives a real insight into family life at the time, when illness and sudden death were all around. And it’s good to see someone finally having a go at Thomas More – never liked him and always thought that previous portrayals left out a lot of the unsavoury elements of his behaviour. I’m not going to say that I felt any increase in sympathy for Henry himself; I’ve always thought he was odious, a tyrant and a cruel man, but Mantel does give some clues as to how he may have turned out that way.
Fascinating and compelling and I am glad I persevered.