Last Wednesday I led the discussion for the Book Club of the Reno Newcomers Club. We discussed Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I originally read Wolf Hall about a year ago. To prepare for Book Club I listened to it on CD.
I enjoy English history and studied it when I was in High School in Australia. I remember that when we learned about Henry VIII we learned the ditty:
Henry the Eighth had six wives
Divorced, beheaded, died
Divorced, beheaded, survived.
Wolf Hall is mainly about the period when Henry is trying to divorce his first wife Katherine so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. The story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell who rose from a blacksmith's son to become the first Earl of Essex and Henry's chief advisor. The book starts out with Cromwell, as a young boy being beaten by his abusive father. It ends when Cromwell is at the height of his power, Anne Boleyn has been crowned Queen and has given birth to daughter Elizabeth, and the English church has broken free of the Roman Catholic Church.
Wolf Hall is 532 pages long and can be confusing to read at least initially until you get a feel for Mantel's prose. Mantel uses "He" to talk about Cromwell even when she has just been talking about someone else. I loved the book because I really felt like I was sitting on Cromwell's shoulder in the early 1500's at Henry VIII's court.
YouTube has a three part interview with Hilary Mantel at a book store called Daunt Books. It is fascinating to watch and listen to. I really recommend it. Here are links to the three parts:
Mantel is working on sequels to Wolf Hall. The first, which will focus on the downfall of Anne Boleyn apparently will be titled, Bring up the Bodies. The second which follows the rest of Cromwell's life after Wolf Hall will be titled, The Mirror and the Light.
As I was reading Wolf Hall I kept wanting to know what happened to the characters. For example I wondered how Thomas Cromwell was related to Oliver Cromwell who was Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth in the mid 1600's. In preparing for the book club discussion I researched the answer. Thomas Cromwell's sister Kat had a son named Richard. Richard is a significant character in Wolf Hall. After his parents die Richard becomes Thomas Cromwell's ward and changes his last name to Cromwell. Richard Cromwell is the great grandfather of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.
I also wondered about the sweating sickness that killed Cromwell's wife and daughters. In my research I learned that the English sweating sickness is a disease that no longer exists and has intrigued medical historians. It only occured in England and Wales. It came out of nowhere in 1485 and disappeared without a trace in 1551. It was characterized by sudden onset, profuse sweating, prostration, and death or recovery within the space of only 24 hours.
Some of the interesting Wolf Hall reviews I read include:
- A Blog by Linda Wolfe
- Christopher Tayler's Review in The Guardian
- Joan Acocella's review in the New Yorker
Thomas Cromwell has mainly been portrayed as a villain in history.This was the case in Robert Bolt's 1960 play A Man for All Seasons and in the Showtime series The Tudors. Hilary Mantel portrays Cromwell very believably and sympathetically. I loved Wolf Hall and I really cared about Cromwell.