Friday, November 09, 2012

Wolf Hall

This Hilary Mantel has been getting a lot of good press for her Bringing Up the Bodies, so I wanted to read the first book in the series: Wolf Hall.  It's the first of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, who was kind of like Henry VIII's right-hand man.  This book is about Henry's divorce from his first wife and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.

To tell the truth, I didn't know a lot about Thomas Cromwell, he is portrayed as a thuggish, desperate child and a enterprising businessman - he comes off as thoughtful and caring, at least for his own people.  His dialogue is very funny - he and other members of the court are portrayed as quite witty.  Henry VIII manages to maintain a image that sort of belies the ever rising death toll around him - instead of coming off as a monster, like I expected, he's jovial and friendly.

I remember learning (in school!) that Anne Boleyn had 6 fingers on one hand, but apparently that's pretty much debunked as a myth.  One of the things I really liked about this book is that it sent me straight to wikipedia over and over again to research the course of events, to find out if various parts of the book were historically accurate.   I'm a little torn because well... historical spoiler alert: Cromwell is executed at the end of his life, so it's kind of weird to read a trilogy where you know straight up what's going to happen in the end.  In a few interviews, Mantel has been quite clear about how she intends to end the books, even.  Also, I don't like reading/watching/thinking about the death penalty, it just really upsets me.  So... I don't know if I'm going to carry on.

Probably I will...

Mantel is a great writer.  She is able to walk that fine line of elegant prose without falling into the trap of cheesy, overwrought language (so typical in a lot of historical fiction).  Another thing I loved about Wolf Hall was the reference to Cromwell's memory technique, based on the Memory Palace idea - my obsession of 2011!  Here she write about Henry going to visit the king of France:

He is taking his own cooks and his own bed, his ministers whom Europe calls his concubine. He is taking the possible claimants to the throne, including the Yorkist Lord Montague, and the Lancastrian Nevilles, to show how tame they are and how secure are the Tudors. He is taking his gold plate, his linen, his pastry chefs and poultry-pickers and poison-taster, and he is even taking his own wine: which you might think is superfluous, but what do you know?
Snap! That last bit of the paragraph slays me!  She does something like that a few times in the book which brings in a very modern sensibility that I love so much!

The title is also really clever - Wolf Hall is where Jane Seymour (#3) grew up - there was some scandal there and it had this reputation as a debauched sort of place (I'm not sure if that's historically accurate or not...).  Anyway, I don't believe any of the book actually takes place in Wolf Hall, but the title continuously reminds you that, despite the sort of glamour and apparent civility of the court of the King of England, the events are dark and frankly, barbaric.

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