Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 2009
532 pages

Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, a highly competitive award given annually to an author from the British Commonwealth or Ireland for an exceptional work of fiction. The winning books are typically very highbrow. That's why it took me so long to read it!

The book follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, from his upbringing as the abused son of a blacksmith to his rise from Cardinal Wolsey's assistant to Henry VIII's minister.  Most books, movies, and television shows like The Tudors portray Cromwell as the disagreeable, slimy, backstabbing enemy of Thomas More. But Wolf Hall shows us the more human side of Cromwell . . . family man, feminist, intellectual . . . and the imperfect side of More. More actually comes across as a jerk in Wolf Hall. It's no wonder that Cromwell opened up a can of whoop-a$$ on him.

The comparisons to The Tudors are unavoidable, but I actually found that having seen three seasons of the Showtime series helped me to understand the characters, the history, and the scenes Mantel describes in Wolf Hall. (Unlike a reviewer on Amazon.com, I wasn't thoroughly confused by all the Thomases, Henrys, Annes, Marys, and Janes in Wolf Hall - thanks to The Tudors!) But unlike the TV show, the focus is on Cromwell and not on Henry and his wives. Unique to Wolf Hall is the focus on the relationship between Cromwell and the Boleyns and Seymours - especially to Anne Boleyn.

Still, I couldn't help picturing some of the actors in The Tudors when I was reading this. Anne Boleyn was certainly not played by Natalie Dormer (simply because Natalie is way too pretty), but handsome Henry Cavill was the Duke of Suffolk; Nick Dunning was the scheming Thomas Boleyn; and of course, James Frain was Cromwell. Ah, the influence of media.

But what Wolf Hall has on The Tudors, in addition to changes in characterization, is historical accuracy. Hilary Mantel spent five years researching the book. Her excellent research skills are apparent in the exquisite detail of every aspect of this tale, from descriptions of court life (fashions, art, activities such as hunting) to snapshots of ordinary daily life, from the bathhouse to the pub.

It seemed to take me forever to read Wolf Hall, but I enjoyed every moment of it, and recommend it highly. Just be aware that it isn't a quick read, and it's not an easy read, either. If you find yourself getting confused with all the Thomases, etc., just consult the handy-dandy chart in front. It explains everything.