I am off series books. It’s been so for a time: my ‘to-read’ list on Goodreads is a shocking 260 books long, and might be longer if I hadn’t preserved it by the expedient of a ‘to-maybe-read’ list. Series addiction would send the thing spiralling out of control.
But here I am, finishing Book Two and chafing for the next. How did I get here? (Besides the exemption in my series fear for audiobooks, that is!) I have a sneaking fondness for Booker winners, so I was curious about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall already. The only thing I knew about it other than its Bookerness was that it and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, were about the reign of Henry VIII.
Now, I was rather interested in the history of the Tudors as a child, due largely to feminist-schoolgirl awe of Queen Elizabeth, but also due to morbid-schoolgirl fascination with messy history. I didn’t even realize at the time what messy history Henry VIII was following! Now, Henry’s story, his desperate quest for a legitimate male heir, seems to me haunted and beset by that of Edward IV, whose legally flawed marriage(s) created such a succession crisis. (See Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time if you need convincing that Edward IV’s overactive tendency to put a ring on it, not any evil of Richard III’s, overthrew his little son.) Anyway, I had a very shallow sort of knowledge of Henry VIII’s reign, just enough to school my family in “Divorced, Beheaded, Died…” and explain which queen was which when we visited England when I was 13. In college I learned a bit more by taking a class on Medieval and Tudor History of England.
I never went in for the recent fad on Tudors, however. There’ve been some very successful book series and movie adaptations as well as the HBO “Tudors”, but I couldn’t summon much interest. Elizabeth, after all, is appealing to me — complicated, cagy, iconoclastic and independent. Henry VIII? Choleric, wife-killing Henry? Just a stage-setter, an interesting little soap opera backstory for my heroine. So it’s possible I came at Wolf Hall with precisely the right degree of ignorance and knowledge: broad background in the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation, enough knowledge of the course of Henry’s marriages to appreciate foreshadowing and see the other shoe about to drop, but enough ignorance to be constantly surprised.
Mantel has chosen her hero so well: Thomas Cromwell, a low-born but brilliant man who rose to stand at Henry’s right hand. I haven’t read up on what’s known of his life yet (that might mean SPOILERS!) but he is a wonderful character for a smart, thoughtful novel (or two, or please soon, three!) on Henry VIII’s struggle for an heir. He’s an outsider but not: born in England but educated all over Europe. This allows him to see Tudor English customs as non-transparent, to show them to us and remark on them, without losing any credibility as a character truly of his age. He isn’t blindered and constrained to the life of the court, so this isn’t the familiar, gossipy soap-opera version of Henry VIII’s court intrigues.
Thomas’s life story is interesting, and his upwards social trajectory is appealing to a modern reader who is unlikely to believe in the divine right to rule or the intrinsic superiority of noble blood. His background in Europe and his interest in the Tyndale Gospel and the reformation of the Church make Thomas a big-picture thinker. And somehow, despite my semester of Medieval and Tudor history, this big picture is one that hadn’t really sunk in. Henry’s desperate need for an heir (and obligatory assumption that the fault was in his women, not in him) was not only a catalyst but an opportunity for many. Henry’s easily mocked desire to cast off his first/brother’s wife constituted a huge challenge to papal authority at a time when many were already chafing to throw off Rome’s yoke. Thomas Cromwell, early (and secret) Protestant, smuggler of banned texts, reader of the Gospel in English, is the perfect character to lead us through this foment. This is not just about Henry’s heir or Henry’s bed: this is the end of the Medieval. This is the cusp of a new world.
Mantel writes beautifully but often simply. Her style here, third person present and relentlessly Cromwell-focused (until the second book, she routinely uses ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell whether or not there has been another masculine antecedent, which can be a trifle confusing,) serves the story well, lending immediacy to these centuries-old events. The narrative inhabits Cromwell so thoroughly that his asides, his incidental associations, become part of the fabric. His memories, images or words, bob back up in my consciousness a week after finishing the book, as they bob back up throughout the first and second book. I can’t wait to hear his voice again in the third.
Also, how sinister and wonderful is the second book’s title? Bring up the bodies, bring up the bodies, bring up the bodies…