While I’ve enjoyed many books in my lifetime, there are only a handful that really grab me and don’t let go. Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, belong to the latter category. Friends who know my reading tastes have been recommending Wolf Hall to me for several years. I kept it on the back burner for much of that time- I do like having a few books in reserve for those occasions when I can’t find anything I want to read. Also, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the time period. Nothing personal against the Tudors, but is there another royal family who has had more fiction written about them? I can’t think of one.
When I started reading, I was immediately drawn to the language. It was somewhat difficult, but interesting. Based on some reviews, it’s also maddening for many. It’s written in present tense, third person from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief adviser from 1532-40. From humble beginnings, Cromwell rose to power after coming to Henry’s attention while working for Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey.
Part of the difficulty in reading this was Mantel nearly always referring to the protagonist as “he,” and sometimes to clarify, “he, Cromwell.” There are a lot of other “he’s,” though and many of them are named Thomas, to add to the confusion. If I hadn’t already been pretty familiar with the time period, I might have given up in the first fifty pages because it was very difficult to figure out what was going on. It got easier once I got into the rhythm of things and pulled into the story.
You’d think there’d be no new way to tell the story of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the beginning of the English Reformation. I thought so, and I was wrong. Told from Cromwell’s perspective, the events seem new and intriguing. Part of it is that Cromwell is an altogether great character. With work experience as a soldier, banker, lawyer and wool merchant, Cromwell quickly became Henry’s fixer-in-chief when he managed to engineer his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. He then facilitated England’s break from the Catholic Church, and Anne’s eventual downfall.
Highly intelligent, ambitious and ruthless, it could be easy to hate Cromwell, and many people have. But Mantel creates a complex, multi-faceted man, who on one hand could bring down queens and luminaries like Thomas More, while on the other hand showing himself to be a loyal friend and devoted family man. I alternated between being afraid of him, wanting to marry him, and wanting him to be my dad.
I particularly loved Cromwell as a father figure. For most of the story, he had only one surviving child, but several nieces, nephews, wards and apprentices were raised in his home in an atmosphere of mutual adoration. Some of my favorite parts of both books were Cromwell’s interactions with his son Gregory, his nephew Richard, his ward Rafe Sadler and protege Thomas Wriothesley (“Call-Me-Risley”). But that made the end harder to bear.
Wolf Hall ends with the triumph of Anne Boleyn and the execution of Thomas More. It covers a period of many years and the pace can be quite slow. The same is not true of Bring Up the Bodies. When Anne loses her luster, and refuses to bear Henry a son, Cromwell starts looking for a replacement. He does this with breathtaking calculation and coldness. While pushing forward the Reformation, Cromwell plots to bring Anne down and settle some scores of his own. How he does this, and more importantly- why-is incredibly cruel and hard to bear.
At least it was for me. I hated the fact that a guy I practically loved by the end of the first book could be capable of such awful things by the end of the second. I put off all other activities to get to the end of Bring Up the Bodies, and spent the next two days in a light fog of despair that it was over and that I could still be so easily disillusioned at my age.
The ability of a book, a character and an author to move me so much is testament to Mantel’s incredible skill as a writer, and her marvelous handling of a complex and fascinating man. This is a trilogy, so there should be a third book eventually. Even though I know how Cromwell’s story ends (Karma’s a bitch), I still can’t wait to experience the twists and turns on the way.