Monday, January 17, 2011

"Wolf Hall," or where Anne Boleyn is AWESOME

So, I adore the show The Tudors, this can be no secret. I may or may not have spent all day Sunday watching the marathon on BBC. I love the history and time period first and foremost, but I also like the costumes and particularly the actors who bring such life and feeling to the characters. While Johnathan Rhys Meyers is not your typical Henry VIII (very slim and brunette), his queens usually stole the show (namely Natalie Dormer and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon, respectively). Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk was the ladies' eye candy and the actress playing Katherine Howard was...well, the airhead. However, in the first three seasons, there was this somewhat seedy character always lurking in the background, Thomas Cromwell. He has some big roles in the overall story, he managed to get Henry divorced from Katherine of Aragon, was able to send Anne Boleyn to her executioner, engineered the destruction of the Catholic church in England, and found Henry his fourth bride, Anne of Cleves. And of course, we all know his unfortunate end. I've always found Cromwell to be a very interesting guy, so I jumped at the chance to read a book about him, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It follows his life from about 1527 to 1535, during the years Cromwell worked as secretary to Henry VIII.

One of the things I noticed about Cromwell in The Tudors was that he was almost always alone. His wife gets one mention early on (historically, she died soon after), and we see his son exactly two times. Cromwell just seems to be a loner; sad and misunderstood. Well, in this book, his children, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, cousins, and various wards all live with him. He is definitely not a lonely a way this made me happy. He didn't seem like such a tragic character when I found this out. Overall, I loved the way the author portrayed him. I think Hilary Mantel must be a very humorous and sarcastic woman, for she sure injects it into almost all of her characters.

I've read many books about Anne Boleyn, but this portrayal of her is hands down my absolute favorite. The best word that I could come up with to describe her is feisty. Cromwell thinks she may be a little psychotic, and he has perfect reason to. She calls Jane Seymour 'pasty-face' and vindicates her evil uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. She thinks her sister Mary Boleyn is a slut and Cromwell is an ugly little man. Yet through all of this apparent bitchiness, I saw her as a witty and extremely sarcastic girl....all still likable somehow. She knew her place but knew how to use it to her advantage. I'd recommend this book just for the Anne Boleyn angle.

One of the big problems with this book is sparse usage of names; the text is littered with personal pronouns. Just keep in mind that whenever you see a 'he,' 'him,' or 'his,' it is 98% of the time referring to Cromwell. It still can be a hassle to read the book, especially when new characters seem to get introduced out of the blue, but I promise, if you can handle it, it'll all be worth it. It was such a different angle on what I already know so much about, it was quite refreshing - 4 stars. I'll leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the book, there were dozens of them!

"A little later, he hears that Anne has taken the wardship of her sister's son, Henry Carey. He wonders if she intends to poison him. Or eat him." (pg. 131)

"The boy has lingered at the door to drink in his praises. A hard Cromwellian stare - the equivalent of a kick - sends him out." (pg. 154)

"At New Year's he had given Anne a present of silver forks with handles of rock crystal. He hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people." (pg. 273)

"The king is a complainer too. He has a headache. The Duke of Suffolk is stupid. The weather is too warm for the time of year." (pg. 282)

"Believe me, God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess [Elizabeth]." (pg. 450)

"The child Elizabeth is wrapped tightly in layers, her fists hidden; just as well, she looks as if she would strike you. Ginger bristles poke from beneath her cap, and her eyes are vigilant; he has never seen an infant in the crib look so ready to take offense." (pg. 512)

"Incest is so popular these days!" (pg. 556)

Also, a big thank you to Passages to the Past, and Picador, the publisher, for providing me with a copy of this book!


  1. I got wolf hall for Christmas after seeing a slew of amazing reviews for it over the past year or so. You're is by and far one of my favorite reviews! I'm a fellow Tudors fan, and loved your comparisons between it and Wolf Hall.
    Thanks for the lovely review!

  2. This sounds really good! I don't know if I've added it to my to-read list yet, but if not, I'll have to now!
    I haven't watched the Tudors yet, but I've been meaning to.. Thing is, it airs here at the same time as the soccer section of the sports news and my boyfriend wants to watch that most of the time.
    Those quotes are wonderful! I especially love that one about Anne eating Henry :)

  3. Thanks Letter! I knew I wanted to do a write-up of some sort on The Tudors, but if I didn't narrow it down somehow, it'd be the longest post EVER.

    You need to watch it soon Daisy! It's not entirely accurate historically, and it's a little too sexed-up for my tastes, but it's all so entertaining. And the amazing quotes were my favorite part of the book :)

  4. This book will stay with me forever. Some months after I had read it, I am now still remembering some of the most powerful and succinct passages I have read in a very long time. To be fair, it will be an advantage to know some of the history of the time of Henry VIII, because this book does assume some insight onto the main players of the time. Other readers found the reference to different characters confusing at times but it should not be. This is an immense work - it is demanding and the reader should be prepared to read passages again and again at times. Which will be a such an utter pleasure. Whilst reading the story I sometimes returned to some parts simply to savour the lyric, witty poetic writing. As a historical novel this is not only well researched and rendered. It offers a sometimes painfully personal insight into the experience of one of the most significant figures of that time. It brings the court of Henry VIII alive through the views and musings of a brilliant observer. The main events and characters of Anne and her father, Norfolk, the King and Katherine are described in such a unique way, it sometimes feel as if though one is reading a latter day gossip column in which they feature. Because one knows the eventual fate of Thomas Cromwell, it feels tragic and I was left feeling desperately sad for him. The title and the end ties up perfectly.

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