'Wolf Hall', 'Bring up the Bodies' and 'The Mirror and the Light': Thoughts at the end of the ̶s̶l̶o̶g̶ journey

( SPOILERS if you don't know the history)

I've wanted to read Wolf Hall for a while. I started it a few times, strained my eyes through the gloom of the TV adaptation, marvelled at Mark Rylance's beautiful acting and kept an eye on my parents' copy as it moved from bookshelf to bookshelf. One day, I was going to read this book. Lock-down seemed like the perfect time to push myself, especially since the last doorstop in the trilogy had finally been released. So I ploughed through those first few chapters until I was fully immersed in the world and now I've finished all three. Am I going to rave about them, like everybody else? No. Was there a lot about them I thought was brilliant? Yes. But I'm not going to pretend I've suddenly fallen in love with literary fiction - although I may or may not be a little bit in love with he, Cromwell, himself. 

The Truth About Thomas Cromwell: Was He Really A Scheming Vulture ...

Wolf Hall and its sequels tell the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose to become Henry VIII's chief councillor. He's usually painted as the bad guy (and I'm still not entirely convinced he wasn't) but author Hilary Mantel makes him the hero. The story is told in third person, but through Cromwell's eyes and his memories. It took me a while to get used to the way Mantel always uses 'He' when referring to her title character (and later, as if she's realised how much confusion she is causing, 'He, Cromwell') and to be honest, the frustration of this quirk only left me when I started listening to the audio-book, where the voices are clearly defined. As a device, it does help draw you into His world. But mostly, it is very, very, irritating. When there are lots of characters in a scene I would like to be clear who's speaking, thank you very much. Also, would it kill you to use speech marks? (Sally Rooney also take note.) I know you think you're being clever, but it would be more clever not to annoy your reader to death. 

Other than the pretentious lack of speech marks and names however, the writing is beautiful. When people talk about these books, they talk about Mantel's world-building and the reader's total immersion in Tudor England. And I felt that. I spent a lot of time boring my family about the dullness of this or that particular bit I was reading - but at least I was talking about it. I was involved. She doesn't go crazy with the description either - I never felt like I was reading a big passage of pointless scenery porn. But something about the writing, or maybe the sheer amount of research that has gone into these books, made the world seem very real. Plus, she uses some great similes. (And I never normally notice that stuff.) 

The problem with being immersed in Cromwell's world - and I'm just going to come out and say it - is that Cromwell's world is quite often, very dull. He's a politician, a lawyer, a councillor. He works 365 days a year, and long hours. He's an interesting man but his day to day is not particularly stimulating. There's no real romance or action - he doesn't even torture anyone (although I find it hard to believe that Anne Boleyn's supposed lovers all confessed without at least a few broken fingers). The saving grace, I suppose, is his backstory, and as Cromwell thinks about his past a lot, that does mix things up a bit. 

Everyone buzzes off the Tudors, but I do tend to find that most Tudor based stuff suffers from a similar affliction: we know too much about them already. The interesting bits we're aware of (the six wives, the be-headings etc.) and so what's left to be dwelt on is a lot of foreign policy and law writing and politics driven by a despot that every author seems desperate to make more sympathetic than he actually was. Can we all just admit that Henry was a monster and be done? But no, even writing from Cromwell's perspective, Mantel's Henry has plenty of excuses made for him. In fact, all of the main players in Tudor England seem utterly unlike-able to me. Except perhaps Anne of Cleves and now, I guess, Cromwell. 

Review: 'Wolf Hall,' the Mini-Series, Unspools Its Power Plays on ...

The characterisation in these books wasn't always to my taste (Anne Boleyn got a raw deal, didn't she?) but I can't deny that the majority of Mantell's characters are well drawn, as are the relationships between them. The people who jump off the page best are Norfolk and Jane Rochford, Christophe and Chapuys, Thomas More, Cromwell's father Walter - and of course Wolsey, because Cromwell loves him so much. Every time the Cardinal's name was brought up, I was on edge for his protegee. I also liked the way Cromwell's daughters never quite disappeared from the story and how his relationship with Gregory was revealed almost gradually, as Cromwell himself realised how his son felt about him. The best relationship though, is between Thomas Cromwell and the reader. By the end I was very attached, so be warned, because we know it doesn't end well. 

So, this trilogy. To sum it up, it was hard work, but probably worth it on the strength of a few brilliant scenes and moments dotted here and there, that made me cry/curl up my fist in anger/laugh un-expectedly/cringe at the mis-understandings, and that you wouldn't get the full effect of if you hadn't had to slog through the boring bits. Although, there are a lot of boring bits. I also struggled through the anti-Catholic rhetoric, which only bothered me (as it was historically accurate for the time period) because I read up a bit about Hilary Mantel and, although raised Catholic herself, it turns out she is actually kind of a bigot, who like Cromwell, thinks Catholics shouldn't be allowed. Cromwell is entitled to some extreme views, he (her version anyway) is fictional and also a Tudor. She is a Booker prize winner with a voice that shouldn't be used to spout religious intolerance. In my personal, lapsed-Catholic opinion. Bigot or not however, she's undoubtedly a good writer.  But if you're going to read these I'd also recommend the audio-books, to help break things up a bit. The narrator (Ben Miles) is wonderful. 

If you can't face the journey though, here's a quick summary - from Danny Dyer's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (Spoilers!)

Have you read the Cromwell books? Big fan, or too much like hard work? 


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