52 in 52: Wolf Hall
I’m a big fan of historical fiction set in the Tudor period. Phillipa Gregory and Jean Plaidy? I devoured their series set during the period like the delicious empty literary calories they are. I don’t just limit myself to books, either. The Tudors? I came for Jonathan Rhys Meyers (historically inaccurate in appearance but damn if he didn’t nail Henry VIII’s personality), stayed for Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn before she reigned as Margery Tyrell, and then made it through the rest of the series because I am a completionist.
I’m not just Tudor humblebragging here. I’m presenting my credentials. Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is an amazing read—if you’re already deeply invested in this era. Otherwise, prepare to feel completely bewildered. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
The thing that makes Henry VIII’s court ripe for eternal fictional reinterpretation is that, more than most historical periods, it’s all about perspective. He went through a string of wives who met varying fates because his conscience urged him to, because he wanted a son to secure the succession after the bloodiness of the Wars of the Roses, or because he was a dirty old man who just wanted a hot young wife—depending on who you ask.
That’s what made The Other Boleyn Girl such a hit. There had been plenty of literary output favoring Team Katherine of Aragon or Team Anne Boleyn, but no one had written from the less-known Boleyn’s perspective.
Wolf Hall might be the home of Jane Seymour and her family (who barely appear enough to warrant top billing), but it’s written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the man who made Henry’s first annulment (Henry never actually got a divorce—he just got really good at pretending certain marriages never existed) happen. I’ve never seen the story from his perspective. He was always the brutal enforcer who got Henry’s dirty work done, no matter who was telling the story.Like I mentioned before, this book can leave you lost if you’re not well acquainted with the cast of characters at Henry’s court. That’s because it just drops you into the action as Thomas, a commoner trying to make his way in a world of well-born schemers, becomes a player at Henry’s court. It follows his rise to power, first at Cardinal Wolsey’s side, then eventually as his own man, before ending with the execution of Thomas More.
However, it’s not written in the first person. You’re not seeing, “I, Thomas, think that…” Instead, Mantel throws around a lot of “he did this” and “he did that.” It’s as if you’re watching the events of the story from a perch on Cromwell’s shoulder. (It doesn’t help that most of the power players are men, making that constant “He” a slippery thing. Occasionally you get deeper glimpses into what Cromwell is thinking, but they’re always mediated through a third-person narration that never lets you feel completely comfortable with Cromwell.
That being said, by the time I finished the book, I went from having a mild distaste for Henry’s butcher to being completely in his corner. His story of an ambitious commoner who comes to court and amasses power for himself while making shit happen should have spoken to me ages ago, but because I always saw his narrative through the eyes of some highborn character or another, it was portrayed as a threatening thing. Bring Up the Bodies is the next book in the series, and I can’t wait to see what Cromwell does next… even if I know that he’ll meet a bloody end eventually. There’s also a PBS miniseries you can watch, instead.
No, you don’t get to complain to me about spoilers when I bring up historical events.
Previously in this series: