Wolf Hall

The book I read on our recent vacation was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This book, big enough to double as a door stop, is set in 1520s and 30s, the time of England’s King Henry VIII– he of the many wives — and tells the story of the English Reformation most particularly through the life of Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The book is beautifully written, and so rich in detail about characters, land and cityscapes, daily life and life at the court, and the unfolding events of Henry’s divorce of Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn, defying and then breaking with Rome to inaugurate the Church of England, you feel you’ve been taken back in time to be part of it. Mantel effectively establishes a world, a historical fictional world, and well deserves the 2009 Man Booker Prize she won for her efforts.

I was struck by two paradoxical things. One is how large — in their complexity  — the changes that we can later call a Reformation are, and how slowly they happen. We study histories of the church (or other institutions) and give dates for beginnings, usually linked to some piece of paper like Martin Luther’s 95 Theses or  in the case of my little denomination, the Document of Secession, but there is much more going on than that, before and after, personalities intertwined in long and interesting ways, convergences of all sorts, and misses too, which make up what we later name and date in our history books.

(I would have liked a stronger sense, in Wolf Hall, of the religious issues at stake, although they are certainly alluded to often: arguments over the sacraments, vernacular translations of Scripture, spiritual authority, and over on the Continent, religious ferment of all kinds, including those extreme Anabaptists at Muenster. The English Reformation has been described as more political than theological. But perhaps shifts in belief or religious practice are never as purely “contesting for the faith”as we’d like to imagine, but collide and congress within individuals with their varying strengths and weaknesses and needs and agendas. So when we thank God for whatever reformation we’re particularly pleased about, we’ll probably have to recognize and thank for it in forms more human than holy.)

At the same time, I was struck by how small a wheel can make a change. Mantel puts it best herself, in this passage from the book:

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtains, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.

7 thoughts on “Wolf Hall

  1. Thanks for this peek into a book and author I have yet to discover on my own. Mary Karr put Hilary Mantel’s memoir on her personal top ten list. I purchased the book but have not yet had time to read it.

    • Oh, time… yes. I mean the lack of it. I’m with Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” With all the time in the world! — And thanks for the tip to Mantel’s memoir. Wolf Hall is the first book of hers I’ve read, but I’ve now put in a request for the memoir at the library (not the heavenly one).

  2. Thanks for your insightful comments on this historical novel, Dora. They, along with the concluding quote from the book, evoked immediate interest in me so I put a hold on it at the public library. Turns out I’m #105 on the list! Which means the book probably won’t be available for summer reading as hoped. Still, it’ll be something to look forward to in autumn.

    By the way, my reading this summer has included reading your own very fine historical novel, “This Hidden Thing,” twice! I find that it too is “beautifully written, and so rich in detail about characters, land and cityscapes, [and] daily life … and effectively establishes … a historical fictional world” for me to enter, enjoy and learn from. So thanks for introducing me to Maria – who is also “more human than holy”(or perhaps “wholly human” as we all are?)–yet she too, experiences small turnings of the wheels of change which may seem miniscule to others (e.g. meeting R., she reaches out to touch his arm–feeling that “she was giving him what she could”) but these are big turns for Maria whose life was ruled by the fear of the discovery of her secret.

    Also, I just finished re-reading two other books by female writers: “Unless” by Carol Shields, and “A Complicated Kindness,” by Miriam Toews. I was again moved by the unflinching clarity of seeing with which both writers explored the bewilderment and pain of modern young Canadian women growing up in two very different families yet sharing a similar sense of confusion related to the virtues (?) of Goodness & Kindness of the settings in which they find themselves. Both stories are told with humour and conclude not with “wild rejoicing” as Norah “recovers, awakening atom by atom, and shyly planning her way” (Shields), but with a fragile yet sturdy hope in a future in which there’ll be a “chance at redemption” (Toews) with just enough good childhood memories for Nomi of her family laughing and talking together, and her Dad “poking around in the yard, making things beautiful right outside my bedroom window,” to give her strength to contemplate the beginning of her own journey of becoming.

    • Leona, thank you for your very kind words about THT. It’s an honour, and humbling, when others read and engage with one’s work. — And thanks too for mentioning the other books you’ve been re-reading. I would second your recommends of these, of A Complicated Kindness for sure, and almost anything by Carol Shields, though I haven’t read Unless. Interesting the way you connected the two books.

  3. Dora, I did not know you had read this too. I loved this book. For me, it was all about Cromwell. I was fascinated at his management & relationship styles, and must confess found many points of resonance. I thought it was one of the best books I had read for a long time, and I will do what I seldom do – read it again. Al

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