Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wolf Hall : a novel

 I loved this book!  The story focuses on a poor blacksmith's son, Thomas Cromwell, who becomes one of the most powerful men in Henry VIII’s English court   Hillary Mantel takes you on a historical journey;  you travel with Cromwell, moment by moment, listening to what he has to say and what he’s thinking, seeing things reserved for only family, in this case, a royal family.  She does a fabulous job in keeping the reader informed of the political climate - 16th century England.

Note: all artwork in this post were painted by Hans Holbein, a character in the book.  

Henry VIII
Everyone in my book club agreed to one troubling writing technique of Mantel’s: her use of the first and third person narrative in the same paragraph.  This will keep you on your toes!  We all had different ideas to the significance of the title.  Interestingly, very little of the action occurs at Wolf Hall.  In one review, Wolf Hall is noted for being a reference to the old Latin saying "Man is wolf to man; a constant reminder of the dangerously opportunistic nature of the world through which Cromwell navigates.”  Hmmmm. 

In historical terms, Wolf Hall is the name of the Seymour family seat in Wiltshire, which no longer exists   I thought the title dealt more directly with the shy, unattractive Jane Seymour.  She is just a lady in waiting to Henry’s second wife (Anne Boleyn) in this book.  After Henry executes Anne, Jane becomes Henry’s third wife.  Not much is made of Jane, though she was probably one of Cromwell’s many spies. 
The author speaks about Jane Seymour as a "blank" in English history, except for the important fact that she is the one woman who gave Henry VIII a son.  "I decided that I was going to write up Jane Seymour.  As there is a blank, I can project something into it." In an video I came across, Mantel reads from her book, and it’s wonderful to hear.
   Jane Seymour

In Wolf Hall, the historical backdrop is barely noticeable, except for all the names; the author fortunately placed a list of characters with short descriptions at the front of the book.  I felt the fictional stories were the most fascinating.  My favorites were about Cromwell’s personal life, a fictional sub-plot to the novel, since not much is known about his actual family and background.  Mantel depicts Cromwell as a clever and intelligent man, a caring father and husband.  He took on many wards throughout his life, educating the girls and raising the boys to work for him. In one reminisce, we see his family:

“They have a big gilded star at the Austin Friars [home of Cromwell] which they hang in their great hall on New Year’s Eve.  For a week it shines out, to welcome their guests at Epiphany.  From summer onward, he and [wife] Liz would be thinking of costumes for the Three Kings, coveting and hoarding scraps of any strange cloth they saw, any new trimmings; then from October, Liz would be sewing in secrecy, improving on last year’s robes by patching them over with new shining panels, quilting a shoulder and weighting a hem, and building each year some fantastical new crowns.  His part was to think what the gifts would be, that the kings had in their boxes.”

Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for Wolf Hall (Booker is the English equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in the United States.)  And she has begun working on the sequel, which she plans to title, “The Mirror and the Light.”  I can’t wait!

1 comment:

Anitra Cameron said...

You make me want to read both books!

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