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Wolf Hall

Having read Wolf Hall so late after its publication, I’m not sure that I can add much in terms of praise that has not already been said by the likes of James Naughtie and Andrew Marr.  What I particularly loved is that, unlike other historical novels, the subject matter seemed current and relevant.

Where I live in Surrey, we are in the middle of Tudor stomping ground, half way between Carew Manor (belonging to Henry’s friend and jousting partner, and later tried for treason, Francis Carew, and the childhood home of Walter Raleigh’s wife, Bess) and his fantasy palace,  Nonsuche. It is no mistake that the historian-turned-novelist Alison Weir has chosen to base herself in this area. For anyone searching for more background information on the same era as Wolf Hall, look no further than Alison Weir’s two offerings: Henry VIII, King and Court and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The focus of the first is the politics of the day and the intricacies of the royal household, whilst the second considers his marriages in more detail. 

However, while Alison is telling a history, Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is interesting how we read fiction with its base in history and assume it to be factual. From the very first page, when the boy Cromwell is beaten by his father, through to his tender relationship with his wife, Hilary Mantel offers us a very different Cromwell, a man who is not only highly intelligent but also likable. The sort of man, perhaps, who might have risen from a Blacksmith’ s son to the second man in England. 

Phillip Pullman recently gave us his experimental book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which so ably showed the power of stories. It followed the original Gospels so closely in parts that it was sometimes difficult to see where subtle changes had been made, illustrating how facts might have been manipulated to represent more universal truths.

Hilary Mantel points out that Cromwell was a heroic figure to the Elizabethans. The Victorians gave him a much harder press, reinventing him as a brutal man, rather than simply of his time, in service of the King of England. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is not only a man of his time; he is a man of the moment. That is what makes him so endlessly fascinating.