Review | Wednesday 01 July 2009
This brick of a book comes with a royal family tree and two-page cast of characters, but don’t expect a standard historical blockbuster from Hilary Mantel. Whilst Wolf Hall revisits very thoroughly explored Tudor territory, traditional villain Thomas Cromwell is Mantel’s hero of choice. The son of a blacksmith, Cromwell was Cardinal Wolsey’s right hand man, then chief legal head-kicker for Henry VIII. He survives a brutal childhood to become an international jack of all trades and staunch family man: secular, intelligent and powerfully ambitious. His sleekness is in contrast to a dishevelled, emotionally and spiritually brutal Thomas More. At court, Anne Boleyn calculates her career while a pale Jane Seymour watches from the shadows. No heaving bosoms here. The whole book is about the acquisition and loss of power: of present and future queens, the monarchy and the church.
The true winners are the financial centres of Europe. Mantel’s writing is so good it demands frequent pauses for re-reading. Her bone dry character observations are often very funny, and she handles a mass of historical detail lightly but with absolute conviction. Wolf Hall doesn’t provide any surprise endings, but it is a supremely enjoyable journey.