I will be the first to admit that this wasn’t one of the Man Booker Long List that I was looking forward to the most. I think the size and subject, despite lots and lots of rave reviews online and in the press, were what were making me feel that this book was going to be too much for me. It wasn’t the fact it was historical fiction, in fact The Tudors, The Victorian era and the 1930’s are eras books can cover that I can read about until the cows come home. It was more who the book was about, was I really interested in a book all about Thomas Cromwell? You know the saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’ this might be my first case of ‘never judge a book by its subject’.
Reading the blurb I was lead to believe that ‘Wolf Hall’ would be the ‘fictional account of the first half of Thomas Cromwell’s life’ which considering I didn’t really know and wasn’t sure that I was all too bothered about. However ‘Wolf Hall’ isn’t just about Thomas Cromwell, though he is the main character and the book covers his youth and leads up to the height of his power to merely call it a ‘fictionalisation of Thomas Cromwell’s life’ doesn’t actually do the book justice whatsoever.
What Hilary Mantel manages to actually conjure up is 35 years of Tudor Britain and focusing especially the pivotal time in England’s history when Henry VIII decided Katherine was not the Queen for him and Anne Boleyn certainly was, thus changing the religious situation of England forever and creating one of its most tempestuous political climates. This isn’t told through the eyes of the King or off any of the Boleyn’s, this is all through the eyes of the man who would struggle and fight to become Henry’s right hand man from his beginnings as the son of an alcoholic abusive butcher.
Though what happens to him between 1500 and 1529 remains quite a mystery Mantel has clearly done a huge amount of research (you couldn’t make the Tudor world seem so very real without putting in huge amounts of time, effort and research) and does give us occasional glimpses when Cromwell reflects which he does now and again. What does come to light is he becomes Cardinal Wolsey’s right hand man and Cardinal Wolsey was of course Henry’s right hand man. Not only do we get to see the lavish lifestyles of the rich such as the king, the lavish like Wolsey and the comfortable like Cromwell. We also get to see, through Cromwell’s work with law, his time amongst the public and poor and time through plagues, how the poor lived and I honestly felt I was walking the streets with him.
Mantel never overdoes it though, her prose is descriptive but tight, she doesn’t wander off into endless flowery paragraphs of descriptions of one castle front, or one of Anne Boleyn’s dresses. The details are there they just happen to be precise and to the point yet vivid and scene setting. So if she is so precise how can this book be over 650 pages? Not because it is filled with endless political or religious terminology if that’s what you are worried about. Mantel spends time building all her characters and their back stories as Cromwell becomes aware of them or takes them into his household. Some of the cast of characters include as Wolsey, Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn as mentioned but also Mary Boleyn, Mary Tudor and Jane Seymour all fascinating historical characters.
I completely fell into the world of this book. I actually couldn’t put it down (which at its size in hardback is quite an effort on the arms) and rushed to read it at any given opportunity. Mantel may or may not win the Man Booker with this but what I think she has done is create an epic novel that will one day be considered a modern classic. I have found it to be one of the most compelling, interesting and complete joy to read novels of the year, and I don’t say that often or lightly. I think the fact it’s the longest of the Man Booker long list and I have read it in the shortest space of time of all of them should speak volumes.
I also think it’s a book that’s accessible to anyone. I don’t think everyone will like it, in fact I didn’t think I would at the start I just immersed myself and was ‘there’, well I felt I was. It seems inevitable that people will compare this to some of Philippa Gregory’s work, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ springs to mind instantly. While I did enjoy that book (sadly the one about one of my favourite women in history Bess of Hardwick ‘The Other Queen’ left me slightly cold) I do think Mantel takes the era an extra step though how is hard to put my finger on. No we will never know if these conversations ever happened but it does seem to be based much more on fact and less on what might possibly have happened. Having said that if you like Gregory (and I do – I just think this takes historical fiction further) then you will love this, if you love literary fiction I can imagine you loving this.
Can you tell I loved it yet? I will stop now, I could go on and on about this book for hours. I have given it straight to ‘The Converted One’ who is a Tudor-holic. I will just add that I do think going to Hampton Court Palace last week was the push I needed to read this and it came just at the right time.
Has anyone else been daunted by this book before reading it like I was? What are your thoughts on it being the favourite for the Man Booker at the moment? What do you think of historical fiction, can it be literary or is it just escapist romps in corsets? What’s the best historical novel you have read?