Alastair Campbell with an Axe

I am a member of Exeter Writers and as a spin-off,  a member of Exeter Writers Book Group. We met yesterday to discuss Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and for once we were all in agreement: it is a triumph of a book. Whatever your views on historical fiction – how far can the novelist go in characterisation, the blurring of fact and fiction, research versus imagination – this is a novel that brings alive this key period in the  Tudor dynasty, with freshness and surprise.

We came a bit late to the party, I know. Amongst many glittering prizes and shortlistings, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker in 2009. It was on my list of to-read books and so I was delighted when it was chosen by a member of our book group; I actually needed the motivation to read the 600 plus pages as I am a lightweight when it comes to novel length (if you see what I mean).

And yes, I got confused from time to time with the notorious ‘he’ thing but this did in effect slow me down, forcing me to go back over the text and gain something deeper. This novel works on so many levels but what I liked the most was Mantel’s use of viewpoint and tense. By having this very close third person narrator (the ‘he’ thing) and using the present tense, we are there in the thick of it, spinning and weaving and ducking and diving with Cromwell. We know as a modern reader how this will end; we have the benefit of history on our side. But none of the characters share our knowledge. Henry has no idea he will end up with six wives. Anne Boleyn does not know that her slim neck will be sliced from her once-adored body by a French swordsman. No one has the first inkling that Baby Elizabeth, with her tufts of red hair, will one day become an icon of English monarchs. Maybe only Cromwell suspects how his fate will pan out and makes hay while the sun shines.

Historian David Starkey has referred to Cromwell as ‘Alastair Campbell with an axe.’ Mantel sets out to show him in a more sympathetic light and succeeds as the reader can’t help but warm to him. His lowly violent childhood, his sense of humour, his love for his family and friends, his experience and memory, these traits all combine to make another portrait of Cromwell, one we have never been shown before. Thomas More has always been held up as the good one. Indeed, at my school, a convent, we had four houses, each named after a Catholic martyr. (I was in More.) In Mantel’s retelling, Thomas More comes across as sinister and stubborn and as the eternal enemy of Cromwell and the Reformation.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Now I’m looking forward to the next installment and will not be put off by the length of it. Not since Ray Winston’s cockney Henry VIII have I been so excited. Especially as Mantel has hinted that we may be in for a surpise. Though one thing’s for certain: Cromwell will come a cropper.

What goes up must go down.

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