"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: Wolf Hall

I mentioned a few times already that I was reading this book, and now finally I get to review it for you all, having finished it a couple of days ago. It's a book I'm very happy to recommend.

Basically, if you like historical fiction, you will probably love it. And if you don't like historical fiction, you may not love it, but it's worth a try.

In this book, Hilary Mantel, whose other books (which are many) I definitely want to read now, tells the story of Henry VIII and his wife-troubles, a well-worn tale. Except that she actually tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, which is one of the things that makes this book distinct from and better than most historical novels. Cromwell was a commoner, the son of a blacksmith, who rose to become assistant to Cardinal Wolsey and Henry's closest adviser.

He is a brilliant choice of narrator, because of course he lends an outsider's perspective on the world of court intrigue and theological finagling that characterize this period of English royal history. According to Mantel at least (I'm not sure how much information exists about Cromwell and how much she had to extrapolate), Cromwell traveled extensively in Europe as a youth and learned many languages and many skills, from the appraisal of fabrics to the secrets of fine cooking. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the important players in the story - where they come from, their positions at court, how much money they have, where they spend it, whom they owe and who owes them, and how he can manipulate all those pieces of information in order to advance the interests of....well, that's the question in this book. It's never quite clear, for any character, whose interests they are seeking to advance. But another thing that makes Cromwell a good narrator is that he at least seems to have very sympathetic and human motivations: he wants what's good for the realm, for his friends and family, for future generations, and of course for himself as well.

If you've seen any of the TV show The Tudors, you'll remember Cromwell as a sneaky-looking little person, unattractive in contrast to, for example, Sir Thomas More as played by Jeremy Northam (or in his earlier incarnation in A Man for All Seasons, by Paul Scofield). Mantel's Cromwell is not any more physically attractive - he's often compared to a bulldog - but he is infinitely more charming, sympathetic and fascinating. Henry's reign marked a real change in English history and coincided with a whole lot of other changes going on in the rest of Europe, including the Reformation. In order to interpret this period, Mantel offers us a thoroughly progressive man. I hesitate to say 'modern,' because never does this book feel untrue to the time. As he alternately bemoans the way life is speeding up and relishes new technological advances, Cromwell proves that he would thrive in any era, making him the ideal interpreter of the past to an audience of the present.

Aside from her protagonist, Mantel's other strength is her writing. Yes, this is a historical novel, and yes, there is a lot of political machination and many, many names to keep track of. She handles it beautifully. There are charts of the royal family and lists of dramatis personae at the front of the book, but I only had to look back at them once or twice. She keeps things consistently clear and, an even greater feat, exciting. I had to stop watching The Tudors half-way through the first season, despite my appreciation of the historical eye-candy, because I was bored. I knew what was going to happen with Anne Boleyn and Catherine and Henry and also what came after. Mantel overcomes this issue by enriching the old story with new detail. I became caught up, not in what was going to happen, but in how it was going to happen.

Anne, for example, instead of being a distant but attractive figure, is given a complex and strong voice. Her intimate conversations with Cromwell during and after the years-long process it took for her to become queen of England feel like a too-good-to-be-true peek behind the historical curtain. Mantel rewards you for all your hard work remembering people's names and court positions by letting you in on their jokes, their sadnesses, the petty details of their lives. One of my favorite details is that Cromwell and the French ambassador, Chapuys, keep up an appearance of chilly distance for diplomatic reasons but privately enjoy each other's company, sharing multi-lingual repartee and an appreciation of good food.

It's a long book, and I can't give the full scope of its brilliance in this post, but if any of this piques your interest, do check out the book and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which continues the story of Anne's brief reign and, I believe, carries on to Jane Seymour's turn as queen. Given how intriguingly Mantel presents Jane's character in Wolf Hall, I can't wait.

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