I savored Wolf Hall. I made it last as long as possible. Like nibbling on a brownie, or spooning tiny bites of ice cream. My strategy worked, too. I got it for Christmas, and here it is, Feb 6, and I just finished it.
It’s the kind of book that allows you to savor it, because it’s not plot driven. I read it in the mornings, for 30 or 40 minutes at a time, and not every day. The driving force of the novel is Thomas Cromwell, who I knew mainly from C. J. Sansom’s historical mysteries; The Tudors; and various, scattered pieces I’d read about the Dissolution. Most often, he’s portrayed as a villain. Brilliant, sly, but a villain nonetheless.
Nothing is what one expects in Wolf Hall. It’s all complexities and contradictions. Cardinal Wolsey is a giant of a man; Sir Thomas More, a brilliant hypocrite. Henry VIII, selfish, obsessed with his former queen, Katherine, and the fact that people still love her. And Cromwell himself, a driven workaholic genius, but closer to hearth and home than we’d ever imagine. A loving husband and father, and a person who takes in orphans, children of friends, women in trouble, and earns the love, respect, and devotion of them all.
The book opens with a stunning scene depicting the brutality of Thomas Cromwell’s father kicking him down the street, nearly killing him. The years that came after, before his return to England and a place with Cardinal Wolsey, we learn about in bits and pieces throughout the book. Mantel shows us his fierce loyalty to Wolsey, and his gradual, deliberate transformation into King Henry’s chief adviser.
There are gorgeous descriptive passages, funny asides, moments of emotional clarity, and countless times we see the man behind the persona. The man who, though he hides it well, has never quite gotten over being thought of as a murderer, the son of a smithy, a mercenary, a person of low birth. He is, in fact, all of the above.
The juxtaposition of Cromwell with More was a stroke of genius. A dinner with the More family, Sir Thomas presiding, is revealing. More is exposed as cruel to his wife, pitiless to his daughter-in-law, and horribly condescending to everyone else. It’s a painful scene for the reader to witness. In the end, we can’t shed a tear for More’s demise. But Cromwell, despite his lifelong animosity for the man, still feels sorrow for him. “He can hardly bear it, to think of More sitting in the dark.”
I’ll close with a particularly beautiful passage, near the end of the book: “Clouds drift and mass in towers and battlements, blowing in from Essex, stacking up over the city, driven by the wind across the broad soaked fields, across the sodden pastureland and swollen rivers, across the dripping forests of the west and out over the sea to Ireland.”
I admit, the title Wolf Hall has me stumped. It’s the country seat of the Seymours. Cromwell has a special friendship with Jane Seymour–not a romance–before she’s caught Henry’s eye. At the end of the book, Cromwell is planning Henry’s Progress for the year, and says they’ll end at Wolf Hall. The last line of the book: “Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.”
What do you think? Why is the book called Wolf Hall?
A book to read again. And again.