Becky’s One Hundred and Twenty-Seventh Book Review: “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel

SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU KNOW NOTHING OF HISTORY AND WANT TO BE SURPRISED AT THE CHOICES HENRY VIII MAKES, AVOID MY REVIEW

“He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.” (Wolf Hall, pg 168).

I picked up “Wolf Hall” because I decided to join The Wall Street Journal Book Club and it is the first book on the list. I really do enjoy reading historical fiction so when I discovered that “Wolf Hall” was about Henry VIII, I couldn’t wait to open the book. What I found really interesting about “Wolf Hall” is that is focuses on Thomas Cromwell as the person in Henry VIII’s world.

“Wolf Hall” is actually the first book in a trilogy following Thomas Cromwell. The second book is already on reserve at the library (Bring Up the Bodies) and the third book is still in the works, expected in 2015 (The Mirror and the Light). I was very pleased to find out that there are more books in this series after enjoying “Wolf Hall” so much.

In this book, we open on Thomas Cromwell as a young boy having the shit beaten out of him by his father and we conclude when he becomes one of Henry VIII’s closest confidants. There were a lot of amazing quotes throughout the book, one that stood out to me was both true and I think foreshadowed events to come. “They never see a great man set up but they must pull him down – for the novelty of the thing.” (Wolf Hall, pg 45).

During “Wolf Hall” we see Henry VIII determine that his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was never valid. He spends the majority of the book changing things in England so he can annul his marriage, declare his daughter a bastard, and marry Anne Boleyn. We all know how well that worked out, but it was interesting to read from a different person’s perspective: Thomas Cromwell. In Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl” we follow Anne’s sister Mary as she tells the story around Anne becoming queen after Henry VIII uses Mary as a concubine. Thomas Cromwell certainly lent a different view on things. For one, Mary isn’t seen as an innocent girl who drew the king’s attention but rather as a vixen that spends all her time jealous of her lost lover to her sister. Thomas Cromwell himself is an interesting character partly because he is a strange fit into the Tutor world. He was brought up a blacksmith’s son; he left to become a solider; he found himself serving a cardinal and eventually finds himself one of Henry VIII’s closest confidants. Although he raised himself up in the world, a lot of people still looked down on him for being born a commoner. He also seemed to have a more humble demeanor because of this circumstance.  Since he was not raised in the same world, he has some insights that I found intriguing. “It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.” (Wolf Hall, pg 294).

I find Henry VIII a very interesting person and I know that I am not alone in this simply because there are so many books and movies about him. I would love to read a book where instead of Henry VIII being seen through someone else’s’ eyes – it is Henry himself telling the story. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll write that book.

Henry VIII really is a complex man; he did many notable things during his reign. You can almost admire the fact that he changed the world to his liking. At the same time, when things got difficult for him he declared ‘off with their head’. He reined from 1509-1547 and during that time there were SO many people killed. Some justly executed, but a lot were just people who Henry felt betrayed him, one way or another. Or he just had another woman catch his eye and the current one on his arm had to be gotten rid of.

One consistent view of Henry VIII always seems to be that he was a big child. He never was taught how to be an adult, partly because he was not expected to reign. His older brother was supposed to be king and his life was cut short. So Henry, who was spoiled as a child and given absolutely everything he wanted, became king. There was one quote that I found interesting because of how much it didn’t relate to Henry. “Childhood was like that; you are punished, then punished again for protesting. So, one learns not to complain; it is a hard lesson, but one never lost.” (Wolf Hall, pg 221). It is a lesson that he never learned. Perhaps if he had learned it, he wouldn’t have been so impatient with just everyone. Maybe he would have had a single wife. Who knows? His fickle nature was amplified by the fact that he never grew up.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, it was a very interesting read although I would warn off those who can’t handle a heavy book, both figuratively and literally. It was a big book and a bit of a burden to carry around while on crutches, but I couldn’t get enough of the Tudor world and so I made it work for me. The novel itself was very well written, well researched, and overall a great read. It was on the dense side, definitely not a beach read by any means, but it fits well with what I want to read in the winter: a heavy book with lots of pages while I curl up with my puppy and a cup of tea.  If you enjoy historical fiction – especially historical fiction featuring Henry VIII – you would enjoy “Wolf Hall”.

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