Monday, January 17, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Today I'm posting a guest review provided by my ever-supportive husband--historian, author, Brad Asher. I hope to coerce convince him to write more guest posts as time goes by. This is a book I bought and fully intend to read myself, but he got to it first. Given his reaction to the novel, I expect I'll be reading it sooner rather than later.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This is not the type of book I read very often. When I want to read history, I tend to read "real" history—the nonfiction kind, with footnotes and all the rest. But I was persuaded to give Wolf Hall a try the old fashioned way, by reading a published review by a reviewer I respect in a print publication, specifically Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic, who highly recommended the book.

Its subject matter is the well-trod ground of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon so that he could be free to marry Anne Boelyn. The king’s divorce, of course, led to the split of the Church of England from the Roman Church. What makes the book interesting is its perspective: It tells the story from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who first served Cardinal Wolsey, an English churchman who worked hard to get the king what he wanted while preserving the unity of the church. When Wolsey failed and fell from Henry’s favor, Cromwell landed on his feet in the King’s court, eventually rising to become the monarch’s right hand man.

Cromwell is charming, smart, loyal, tough, not especially good-looking, and most of all extraordinarily competent. So while the book’s subject matter is the king’s divorce, it is really "about" the triumph of merit over nobility. Most of the high-born people in the book –including the King—are impulsive, petulant, even childish. While they look down at Cromwell for being the son of a blacksmith, he outmaneuvers them all within the circle of courtiers because he is just so effective at getting things done. The pleasure of the book comes in seeing how he is going to work out the practical problems of the king’s desire for a divorce—so even though I knew how the story would end, I was anxious to see how Cromwell managed it.

Along the way, Mantel introduces a number of other interesting minor characters from Cromwell’s circle, as well as historical figures from the King’s court. You also learn a little something about the Reformation, Church politics, and English history, but like all good historical fiction, you don’t even realize you are learning it.

review by Brad Asher

1 comment:

  1. I recently bought a copy of this big doorstop of a book. I haven't heard anyone say they didn't like it. I would like to get to it soonish, but am always daunted by books this big.