Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is the story of Thomas Cromwell, an abused child of an English blacksmith who ran away to be a soldier to save his own life, a choice that strikes me as an unusual way to save your life, but there were not a lot of choices then. He did much more in his travels than just soldiering and, by the time he returned to England, his experiences had turned him into a formidable young man. He became the advisor and confidant of the King, and held so many royal offices and honors that envy earned him aristocratic enemies who did not dare to act as enemies.
In Wolf Hall, named after an estate that actually figures very little in the first book, we find Henry VIII who wants to set aside his first wife, Katherine, the Queen, so he can marry Anne Boleyn, a woman with many seductive skills. Henry needs a son as heir and since Katharine has not given him one, he hopes the younger, prettier Anne, will.
England is Catholic and there are all kinds of problems with the Pope and the Cardinals who believe the first marriage is legal and cannot be set aside. Cromwell has an ingenious solution to make this marriage happen, a solution that turns England upside down. Maybe you already know what it is, but you didn’t hear it from me.
The history of England has always interested me. My mother’s ancestors trace back to Shoreditch, which was an actual place near London even in the days of the Tudors, so perhaps I am genetically inclined to be an Anglophile, or perhaps I am just a fan of royalty. But I don’t think the attraction comes from either of these passions. I think it has more to do with the longevity of British history. The nation is old, and the human kindnesses and cruelties get so exaggerated when a succession of kings and queens becomes the focus of both hope and despair for an entire nation, one generation at a time. It’s fascinating. All the best and worst traits of humans, especially humans with power, are revealed., but at a safe time remove.
If Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall, starts a bit slowly at first, it may be the pronouns that are at fault. It sometimes seems difficult to figure out the antecedent to “he” or “her or “they.” There are so many characters involved. Just don’t get hung up on figuring our exactly who is talking. The writing pace is quick and the pronoun trick helps speed things along. Stay with it. It does not take long at all to get your Brit geek in gear. On to Book 2. (It’s a trilogy!)
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