Henry Holt, 2009
When a book has garnered its author the Nobel Prize in Literature, what more can be said by a little blogger like me? Obviously, it’s a good book. The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and other most illustrious bodies have delivered well-researched and knowledgeable reviews of this historical novel. I will now write a review from the ground that I suspect most of my readers occupy. With no slight intended toward my discerning audience, I bet that most of you find 16th century English history to be a confusing mess. I can never keep track of who was dethroning and beheading whom, and whether the Scots were involved. I know the bit about Henry having lots of wives, though I couldn’t say just how many. I know it caused an awful row with the Pope. So it was that I was well into Wolf Hall before I realized that the protagonist Thomas Cromwell must have been a real person. Don’t confuse him with Oliver, who came much later.
Part of what makes this novel work is that it’s a little like Sesame Street, those innocent of knowledge can enjoy it on one level, while the scholars (the grown-ups) can appreciate all the references and plot lines that blow right by the rest of us. The story follows Thomas Cromwell, a lowly son of a blacksmith who makes his improbable way to the inner council of King Henry VIII, just as the monarch is determined to prove that his two-and-a-half decades of marriage to Katherine of Aragon never really occurred. Since they didn’t occur, he ought to be free to marry Anne Boleyn. Accomplishing this, however, takes the better part of another decade, and still fails to produce the male heir Henry so desperately desires. The reader (even this one!) knows that Anne will lose her head on trumped up charges and additional marriages will ensue. The characters, however, give about 50/50 odds to Anne, and position themselves as best they can.
Mantel juxtaposes the positioning, the intrigues, and the hypocrisy at court with the tumult of the truly religious. A renegade priest has been translating the Bible into English so that all may read it. Those who are caught doing so are tortured and burned. Their friends and family persist nonetheless in such reading. Luther’s bold new version of religion threatens to spill beyond Germany, where Christian communes are taking over cities. In the English countryside, convents and monasteries house both saintly sacrifice and vile misdeeds. It’s hard to say how things will shake out. Such tumult, in turn, serves to strengthen Henry’s resolve that a male heir must be legitimately got in order to unify and indeed preserve the nation when his reign ends. (more…)