Friday, December 31, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Rating: 4 Stars

2010 Booker Prize

One thing has to be said for Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ – she knows how to capture our attention. The initial meeting with the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, grabs you by the collar, yanks you into the story, and keeps you immersed in 16th. Century England till the very end.

‘Wolf Hall’ is a book that wears its scholarship lightly. However, it is one that is better appreciated with an intense curiosity, rather than a vague interest in the Tudor Period; particularly the reign of Henry VIII. That happens to be the story’s setting. The monarch of England is dissatisfied with his current marriage to Katherine of Aragon, both because it has failed to produce a male heir to a throne, and because he is infatuated with Anne Boleyn, who has apparently told the King something along the lines of “not a thing till I get that ring”.  

But we’re talking about 16th. Century Europe which is in the thrall of the Catholic Church. Divorce is taboo, and annulment by papal consent, though possible in other cases, will not be considered here. Why? Because Queen Katherine of Aragon is the aunt of King Charles V of Spain, who just happens to be the Holy Roman Emperor, and whose feathers the Pope dare not ruffle. King Charles the V is moved by more than mere family sentiment – if Henry’s marriage to Katherine is annulled, their only child, Mary, would be removed from the line of succession. For all practical purposes, Charles V would obviously rather have his cousin on the throne of England. 

What options does King Henry have? This is a period of religious restlessness and social turmoil. Martin Luther’s Protestantism is spreading throughout Europe, despite the Church’s attempts to squash it with its full and brutal might. The translation of the Bible into English is giving access to every Englishman who might want to interpret the Lord’s word for himself. And that certainly can’t be allowed to happen.

Ultimately, England’s break with the Catholic Church, which was a turning point in European history had less to do with religion, and was more a pursuit of passion, a pursuit of politics.

The King’s man, who job it is to make the impossible possible is Thomas Cromwell. In an age of frivolous gentlemen, all jockeying to be the trusted adviser of a vain, fickle-minded King, Cromwell stands out as a man of substance. Coming from a humble background that he won’t be bothered to either conceal or improve upon, Cromwell comes across a pragmatic, ruthlessly competent man, with a long memory for both friends and enemies.

The book’s most striking aspect is the characterization of the enigmatic Cromwell who plays the game, with all cards held close to his chest. No less compelling are the other luminaries in the book – conniving Anne Boleyn; irascible Duke of Norlfolk; fanatical Thomas More; volatile King Henry, who nevertheless wins our liking; and, the charismatic, brilliant Wolsey. 

Wolsey is both Cromwell’s friend and his mentor. The two men have much in common, but with one crucial difference - Cromwell succeeds where Wolsey could not. He succeeds a little too well. As his eminence grows, so does his ambition, or, is it the other way around? By the end of the book, the dauntless Cromwell has started soaring a little too close to the sun on waxen wings. The reader can only wait with foreboding for the promised sequel.

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