There’s nothing arty farty about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The 2009 Booker Prize winner is solid entertainment for anyone who loves a good story.
Set in the reign of Henry VIII, it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who becomes the king’s most trusted adviser and the most powerful man in the kingdom.
Now why should that interest anyone except history buffs?
I was surprised by how contemporary it is.
There are no “forsooths” and “begorrahs” here, no archaisms to look up in the dictionary.
Mantel writes in modern English and yet recaptures the old England beautifully.
It’s like a postcard from an exotic place. The lords and ladies wear doublets and gowns, shoot bows and arrows, and marry partners chosen by their parents before they are out of their teens — but they are no different from us in their feelings, impulses and motivations.
This is a book about politics, sex, intrigue and ambition.
Henry VIII’s England is like a modern dictatorship. We see his deputy, Cromwell, draft new laws to stifle dissent and get them passed by parliament.
We see the religious persecution under Cromwell’s predecessor, Sir Thomas More, who opposed the Reformation and imprisoned anyone found with an English translation of the Bible.
Yet the ruler himself, Henry VIII, wants to be loved by his people. And it is remarkable the devotion he inspires.
Cromwell’s mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, still feels affection for the king, whom he has served for many years, even after Henry VIII has stripped him of power and authority.
Queen Katherine, the king’s wife, continues to send him gifts even after he has banished her from his court.
We also see the limitations of royal power.
Henry VIII cannot marry Anne Boleyn, the woman he loves, until the Pope annuls his marriage to Katherine. The Pope hesitates to do so for fear of offending the Spanish emperor, the queen’s nephew.
Meanwhile, Anne is not going to bed with the king until they are husband and wife.
Her sister, Mary, gossips with Cromwell about the demands she makes on the king before he is allowed to touch her.
That was how England broke with the Church of Rome — for a woman’s touch.
The king has his marriage to Katherine annulled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and marries Anne.
But he does not get what he wanted — a son to succeed him.
Katherine had to go because she had only given him a daughter, Mary.
So would Anne, bearing him another daughter who would grow up to be Queen Elizabeth I.
But we are jumping ahead of the story.
Wolf Hall ends after the birth of Elizabeth, with Henry VIII firmly on the throne and Cromwell at the height of his power.
Sir Thomas More is executed because he refuses to accept the authority of the king over the church.
Yet the king is prepared to be lenient.
More is asked only to make a show of allegiance to the king and his life will be spared.
More refuses to unbend. He is concerned about what others will think of him — people he admires like the philosopher Erasmus.
This European perspective, setting the England of Henry VIII against the background of the European Reformation, gives breadth to the story and makes it all the more relevant. For we see the social and political changes being brought about. It is a period of transition like our own times.
Cromwell, in many ways, is a modern man. He is a former soldier who has learnt the law and has worked with merchants and bankers. That is the source of his power. When the king needs money, he knows where to find it, and his knowledge of the law helps him to extend the king’s authority through new legislation.
The king wields absolute power with the help of learned men of great ability. Cromwell, Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey — who was the king’s closest adviser before his downfall — are cultured, astute, with rich, powerful friends across Europe.
Some of the old nobility, like the Duke of Norfolk, are uncouth in comparison. The duke complains to Cromwell that his wife hates living in the same house as his mistress, but he can’t go out every time he wants to see his mistress, he says.
He might as well have bayed at the moon, for Cromwell is a devoted family man. He remains close to his children and dependants after the death of his beloved wife.
Like any good political novel, Wolf Hall alternates political machinations with domestic life. You see Cromwell looking after his family and engaging in household activities.
He is not put out when Rafe, a boy he has brought up, secretly marries a girl for love and not, as the children of rich families were expected to do, enter into an arranged marriage. Instead, he thinks of ways to help Rafe.
A family man who is also ambitious, ruthless, diplomatic, open to new ideas and a workaholic, he is the prototype of the modern corporate high flyer.
Old order, new order
You can see the seeds of the modern age being sown in Henry VIII’s London with its prosperous, literate middle class, the buying and selling of property by merchants and nobles. Even the absolute rule of Henry VIII marks progress from feudalism when the nobles were all-powerful. For it made possible the rise of commoners like Cromwell, who were disdained by aristocrats like the Duke of Norfolk.
Of course, we have come a long way since then.
The London of Henry VIII was frequently visited by plagues; Cromwell’s wife died of a sweating sickness. Criminals, heretics and traitors were hanged, burnt, beheaded. Public executions were popular spectacles that attracted huge crowds.
Yet, but yet, we can see society in transition. Men like Cromwell were precursors to the modern age.
Quite rightly, the story is told in modern English. This is not just for history lovers.
You have to cross one hurdle, though. The book is awfully bulky, running to more than 600 pages. Open the book, nevertheless. It’s worth it.