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Beneath every history, another history.

What a marvelous book is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I know a lot of people didn’t like that it is written in the present tense but I found it gave an immediacy to the story it would have otherwise lacked. It is historical fiction and to write of a historical period so well known and in such fine detail in the past tense, I think that would have bogged it down. Also, I liked the interiority that calling Cromwell “he” gave the book. It made it reflective and thoughtful, it made me pay attention.

Things that surprised me. How detailed and slow moving through time the story is. We start with Cromwell as a boy getting knocked down and beaten by his blacksmith father. There is a speedy tour through Cromwell’s youth and then he is an adult working for Cardinal Wolsey. And Wolsey doesn’t die until just over a third of the way through the book. The next huge chunk is taken up with the minute details of Cromwell worming his way into the good graces of Henry and dealing with the problem of his marriage to Katherine and his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Then the final shorter section after Henry and Anne marry, Anne becomes queen, bears a child that will become Queen Elizabeth I and then miscarries a second child. The book ends with the death of Thomas More.

For best effect, it helps to know at least a general outline of events but it is not necessary to be highly familiar with them. Knowing what is going to happen, where things are leading, creates a certain frisson. The book is dramatic irony at its best.

I did not expect the book to be funny but it was. No, I didn’t laugh my way through, but there are lots of humorous moments like this one in which Anne has sent one of her ladies off to find a Bible:

Mistress Shelton comes careering towards him. ‘My lady wants a Bible!’

‘Master Cromwell can recite the whole New Testament,’ Wyatt says helpfully.

The girl looks agonised. ‘I think she wants it to swear on.’

‘In that case I’m no use to her.’


And there is a young man sent to work for Cromwell whom he suspects is there to spy. Cromwell takes it all in stride, he has sent his people to spy on others so it is only natural. The boy is named Wriosthesley and tells them “Call me Risely.” So Cromwell and his son and others in his house start referring to Wriosthesley as “Call Me.” That doesn’t sound so funny when I type it out, but in the book it is a hoot, you’ll have to take my word for it.

I work at a Catholic University though I myself am not Catholic. Thomas More is a saint who died for his religion. There is a statue of him by our practice courtroom. The way he is portrayed in Wolf Hall is far from saintly. A book that a student requested came in the other day about Thomas More. It was written after Wolf Hall and had a chapter in it about how Mantel is very wrong in how she characterizes More. Unfortunately I don’t remember what the title of the book was, but I thought it interesting that a work of nonfiction felt it had to address how More is portrayed in a book of fiction.

Before reading Wolf Hall my impression of Cromwell was not a positive one but as I read I quickly came to like Cromwell very much. He is not a man I would want to cross but he takes care of his own and cares deeply about them. He is a brilliant man and an opportunist. I know he meets a dreadful end but I could not help cheering him on, this son of a blacksmith who refuses to buy himself a title and an aristocratic ancestry. Towards the end of the book there is some foreshadowing of his downfall which is years away yet:

Rafe says, passionate, ‘How could I think to keep a secret from you? You see everything, sir.’

‘Ah. Only up to a point.’

And when he misses that thing it will be off with his head.

But that is for another book, Bring Up the Bodies maybe. Though according to Mantel there are three books. Since Cromwell is the star, I imagine his end won’t come until the end of the third book.

I read Wolf Hall along with Litlove and we exchanged a few emails about it. She posted about it last week so be sure to take a gander at her thoughts on the book too.