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'Wolf Hall': Review

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I generally tend to avoid long books.  It's partly laziness, I suppose, and partly its close relative, impatience.  But it's also partly out of a genuine belief that what can be said in 600 pages can often be said as well in two.  Two hundred, then.  I harbor the belief that the sheer bulk of so many of the books produced today is pure literary indulgence.

I did, though, make it to the end of Wolf Hall, a fine, long historical novel by Hilary Mantel, and found myself for the most part engrossed in her rich detail of plot, character and social circumstance.  The book transports the reader back so convincingly to 16th-century England that, when you put it down for a needed break, it's hard to bring your head back to 21st century America.  I did, I confess, have moments when I wondered why it needed to be quite so long, especially given that it covers so short a historical timespan -- from Henry VIII's disenchantment with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for her failure to produce a male heir, to the early days of his second marriage to the dreadful Anne Boleyn.

Everybody knows, of course, about Henry's serial marriages.  Most products of an English education know the fate, if not the names, of the unfortunate sextet -- thanks to the mnemonic we learned in history class: "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived."  Seen through the eyes of the wily advisor to the king, Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall's plot turns on Henry's vain efforts to win the pope's approval for that first divorce and his infatuation with, and eventual marriage to, Anne.  This scheming teaser of the royal prick remained, it seemed, steadfastly chaste -- at least in her relationship with Henry, if less so with other suitors -- until he agreed to fulfill her ambition and make her Queen of England.

Wolf Hall does not have the epic sweep of some novels of its genre.  It concerns itself with back-room deals between powerful forces; with tawdry affairs and the gossip of the courtiers gathered around the king; with the bustling streets of the capital and the omnipresent fear of contagion and death; with the green hillsides and woods outside of London where the (frankly less than noble) nobility hunt in their leisure hours.  And of course with the oversized ego of a king whose moods swing unpredictably between sentimental tenderness and murderous vengefulness.  I have written before about the brutality of my countrymen of this period in the context of the excellent television series about the Tudors.  Mantel spares us no detail when it comes to the burning of heretics or the disemboweling of those who commit treason in the eyes of the king.  Henry's mercy extends no further than according his victims a speedy death beneath the executioner's axe.

The monarchy is historically all about male succession, and Henry produced no viable male heir.  (Elizabeth, who succeeded him, was the daughter of Anne Boleyn.)  This, then, was the mainspring of all internal political action as well as of international affairs.  Marriage was business.  And marriage was the prerogative of the church, whose blessing was required to validate it.  Mantel affords the reader a glimpse into the subtle and complicated shifts of European diplomacy and politics, the wrangling between church and state -- and between Catholic and Protestant -- that led to Henry's eventual defiance of the pope (demoted, in English court circles, to the "Bishop of Rome") and his marriage to Anne.  All this is observed by the keen eye of our protagonist, Cromwell, whose machinations lead him from an essentially secretarial job with the ill-fated Cardinal Wolsey to the executive power behind Henry's throne.  Along the way, he must thread his way carefully between the conflicting factions of the generally feckless aristocracy and the prelates of the church.  Roughly, they are divided between those who support the ambitions of Anne Boleyn and those who are loyal, at great cost, to Catherine.

It's a fascinating story.  We are carried along to a certain extent by our general knowledge of history.  I was waiting all along for Anne to get her comeuppance at the executioner's block at the Tower.  (Spoiler alert: We never get quite that far.  See the sequel.)  The rise and fall of Sir Thomas More, a holdout for Catholic conscience and Queen, is also well known.  What grabs us here is not the broad picture but the detail, and Mantel is very good indeed at making it all real -- from the palace banquets to the furnishings of halls and castles, from the feel and texture of regal clothing to the odor of the privy.  And what grabs us too, importantly, is the subtlety, wit, and superbly intelligent self-awareness of the mind through which we see it all: we learn to admire this remarkable navigator and survivor, the crafty, erudite, multi-lingual Thomas Cromwell, who knows how to be a trusted friend to the king he serves, and how to help the monarch to achieve his sometimes nefarious goals -- while always, determinedly, serving his own.

All in all, Wolf Hall is a fine read for the enthusiast of English history, then, and one that rewards the reader patient enough to submit to its length.  I think I need a break, however, before cracking open the pages of its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.