Saturday, 24 July 2010

A Man of Many Parts

I DIDN’T want Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to end, and when I finished the final page I felt a sense of loss, as if I was leaving old friends behind – a sense heightened by the hindsight of history, for I know what is to happen to these people.

The book follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry VIII’s chief minister and was one of the architects of the English Reformation.

This turbulent period of history, with its cast of intriguing characters, has continued to fascinate us for almost 500 years, and has been well documented, but Mantel tells the tale from a different perspective.

And she tells it with intelligence, warmth, humour and compassion.

Despite the wealth of information available about Tudor England, little is known about Cromwell. Mantel has fleshed out the facts and created a man who is more cultured and humane than we imagined from the grim face in that Holbein portrait.

She gives us an unloved blacksmith’s son, who educates himself and is a man of many parts – soldier, accountant, merchant, lawyer, cardinal’s secretary and advisor to the King.

Having dragged himself out of the gutter, he is a shrewd operator with an eye for the main chance, but he remains something of a puzzle.

He is a man who loves the fine things in his life – expensive clothes, good food and drink, witty companions, the latest books and pictures, a comfortable house – yet doesn’t seem motivated by the acquisition of possessions.

He loves his family, his friends and his pet dogs and remained loyal to Wolsey after the Cardinal’s downfall, yet managed not only to survive that, but to become Henry’s trusted confidante and advisor.

His background and personality make him better placed than many to cope with the plotting and intrigue of the court, where a man’s life could turn on the whim of the king – yet his position as an outsider weakened him, alienating him from the nobles.

He is honest, after his own fashion, genuinely believes the church needs reforming, and seems to be a man of integrity, yet he uses his considerable talents for what many regarded as dubious ends.

Was he moved by power? Religious fervour? Or did he simply deal with each situation as it arose, never expecting to find himself in such exalted company?

Figures from history spring to life as he moves up the social ladder: shrewish Anne Boleyn, sanctimonious Sir Thomas More, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Cranmer, Hans Holbein and many others.

Alongside them are lesser known people: Cromwell’s wife and daughters, who all died of ‘sweating sickness’, his son and his nephew.

Then there are others: merchants, cooks, kitchen boys, clerks and servants.

All are clearly drawn, believable individuals who help bring the book alive as you expience the sights, sounds and smells of the 16th century.

Mantel’s award winning novel (it gained the Man Book Prize in 2009) was loved and hated in equal measure, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. Highly acclaimed by critics, it was less favourably received by some members of the public, who disliked the way it is written in the present tense, and were confuse by references to Cromwell as ‘he’.

Personally I think the use of present tense makes for a tremendous sense of immediacy and involvement in the characters’ feelings and actions, and perfectly reflects the fast-changing events at Henry’s court, as he woos and marries Ann Boleyn, cutting his ties with Rome church in order to do so.

The use of the third person singular did, on a few occasions, seem confusing, and it was not always clear who the ‘he’ referred to – but rereading a paragraph quickly resolves this, and did not detract from the story.

VERDICT: Loved it! It was well written, well researched, with a different view on a well-known period of history, that me think about our perceptions of people. It goes on the shelf for re-reading and will become one of my all-time favourites.

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