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Wolf Hall

March 7, 2012

The old gray minivan, she ain’t what she used to be. We found her in 2002, when my youngest was still using a booster seat. We drove her from Ohio to places as far off as Dallas, Texas, St. Louis, Missouri, Chicago, Illinois, Charleston, South Carolina, El Dorado, Arkansas, and Grinnell, Iowa. I used her for commuting to work and taking Walker to his traveling soccer games, transporting Eleanor and her friends to and from rehearsals and concerts, and getting us to chess tournaments. And she never once let us down. But machines get old, and none of us are genius mechanics like Firefly‘s Kaylee—even she admitted that “sometimes a thing gets broke can’t be fixed.”

The last audiobook I listened to while driving my daily rounds was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I found this to be an excellent choice for February. No matter how miserable I felt, something worse was always happening to the people in Tudor England. I found the writing and the sentiments congenial in every way, hearing lines like “Lent saps the spirits, as of course it is designed to do” while driving through the grayness of Ash Wednesday.

From the moment we meet the main character, Thomas Cromwell, something terrible is happening to somebody—he is introduced while being beaten, literally, within an inch of his life by his father. What saves that from being entirely grim is the wide variety of characters and their reactions, like that Thomas’ brother-in-law’s reaction to the latest beating is “wonder…some men have a habitual sniffle, some women have a headache, and Morgan has this wonder.” Such things did happen back then, and such things still do happen, although less publicly, but it’s as comforting as the hands of Thomas’ older sister wiping his blood away to think that there have always been people who can’t quite believe how brutal other people can be.

Much of the fun of reading Wolf Hall is that you already know many of the characters, and you know what happened to them. But you’ve probably never seen them quite so close before. Readers’ introduction to Jane Seymour, whose fate we already know, reveals little of her eventual importance, except in Thomas Cromwell’s reaction to her. I love Cardinal Wolsey as soon as he appears, because Thomas does. I especially love the way we’re introduced to his quandary:

“’I love the king. God knows how I love him. But sometimes my faculty of commiseration is strained.’ He raises his glass, looks over the rim. ‘Picture to yourself, Tom. Imagine this. You are a man of some thirty-five years of age. You are in good health and of a hearty appetite, you have your bowels opened every day, your joints are supple, your bones support you, and in addition you are King of England. But.’ He shakes his head. ‘But! If only he wanted something simple. The Philosopher’s Stone. The elixir of youth. One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces….Now the chest of gold I have hopes of, and the elixir, all the rest. But where shall I begin looking for a son to rule his country after him?”

I also like the way the women of Thomas Cromwell’s household provide him with insight into political situations: “why should my wife worry about women who have no sons? Possibly it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that, he thinks.”

By means of conversation, Mantel briefly demonstrates the situation of people in this time to the people of her own, to whom it is quite foreign:

“He believes he is free to choose his wife.”
“Choose his–!” the cardinal breaks off. “I never heard the like. He’s not some plowboy. He’s the man who will have to hold the north for us, one of these days, and if he doesn’t understand his position in the world then he must learn it or forfeit it. The match already made with Shrewsbury’s daughter is a fit match for him, and a match made by me, and agreed by the king. And the Earl of Shrewsbury, I can tell you, doesn’t take kindly to this sort of moonstruck clowning by a boy who’s promised to his daughter.”

Thomas Cromwell, however, has some modern sensibilities, and since we see the rest of his world through his eyes, that is reassuring:

“Under his clothes, it is well known, More wears a jerkin of horsehair. He beats himself with a small scourge, of the type used by some religious orders. What lodges in his mind, Thomas Cromwell’s, is that somebody makes these instruments of daily torture. Someone combs the horsehair into coarse tufts, knots them and chops the blunt ends, knowing that their purpose is to snap off under the skin and irritate it into weeping sores. Is it monks who make them, knotting and snipping in a fury of righteousness, chuckling at the thought of the pain they will cause to persons unknown? Are simple villagers paid—how, by the dozen?—for making flails with waxed knots? Does it keep farmworkers busy during the slow winter months? When the money for their honest labor is put into their hands, do the makers think of the hands that will pick up the product?
We don’t have to invite pain in, he thinks. It’s waiting for us: sooner rather than later.”

Even when Thomas’ wife and then, later, his two daughters die of the plague, his reaction seems contemporary: “These things happen; but not to us.” Thomas is unfailingly kind, especially to children. He makes his own son’s life as easy as he can, because he wants to be as unlike his own father as he can, and he takes in nephews and wards and clerks and assembles a large household of people who need refuge from the torments of the world outside. He is “a man of vigorous invention” and he employs his considerable wit to protect all the members of his household.

Near the end of this long book, Thomas Cromwell, who has successfully navigated the very stormy seas of Henry VIII’s court, hears these words from the king:

“Henry says, “Do what you have to do. I will back you.”
It’s like hearing words you’ve waited all your life to hear. It’s like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.”

But Thomas Cromwell, in recollection, has the example of people he has known, like Wolsey, to keep him from becoming complacent. He is smart, and he is compassionate, and it is a pleasure to watch him continue to prosper, learn, and continually aim for what, with the hindsight of history, readers know is the correct next target.

All in all, a perfect last book to wrap up a decade of my life in the old, gray minivan where so many of my memories were made, many long years ago.

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2012 10:06 am

    I loved that book. So densely interesting, and a nice twist on the usual telling of that period.

    • March 8, 2012 7:35 am

      Yes. I didn’t work in my reaction to the Thomas More parts. Like Thomas Cromwell, I was horrified that someone I had read and respected was like that in his private life. And how ironic–the author of Utopia.

  2. March 7, 2012 10:09 am

    I think I may be the last blogger who hasn’t read this book, it is one of those books that has been on my wishlist for a very long time, but that I just never yet picked up.

    You post was very lovely, so wonderfully written! It really sounds like this was a good final book for the minivan.

    • March 8, 2012 7:38 am

      The good thing about waiting a while to read new books that made a splash is that the audiobook is available at the library–and then the paper copy is in, too. I had to get the paper copy to look up the parts I liked and put some of them in this review. And it’s always fun to see how the names you’ve heard are spelled. Thomas’ sister-in-law sounded like she was named Joanna, but on paper it’s Johane.

  3. March 7, 2012 10:35 am

    I haven’t read it either, but it’s on my ever-lengthening list. Also, I drive an ancestor of your minivan (1991 blue-and-rust Previa). I’m sure it would send your minivan a salute if it could.

    • March 8, 2012 7:41 am

      I feel like the minivan kept us safe for the last ten years. Now I have to get used to a new set of controls, since we didn’t replace it with another Toyota.

  4. March 7, 2012 12:22 pm

    Lovely post. Lovely.
    Goodbye ol’ gray minivan. Hello Escape (and pina coladas and dancing in the rain.)

    • March 8, 2012 7:43 am

      Yes, we replaced it with an Escape, which I like partly for the name! It doesn’t seat as many, but it has room for sand castle toys and beach chairs for four or dorm room furnishings for one.

  5. March 7, 2012 1:21 pm

    I loved that book, too. And I love that picture of you —

  6. March 7, 2012 2:39 pm

    You could have a second career as an auto show model. For reals.

    • March 8, 2012 7:45 am

      Do you think they might rather have someone who doesn’t make the vehicle look so low to the ground?

  7. freshhell permalink
    March 7, 2012 7:04 pm

    Bye minivan! Hello Escape! Haven’t read the book either. That is a great photo.

    • March 8, 2012 7:47 am

      You’d probably like Wolf Hall as an audiobook, with all the driving you do. I liked that it wasn’t hard to pick up the thread of the story again.

      • freshhell permalink
        March 8, 2012 2:47 pm

        I’ll have to see if the library carries it.

  8. March 7, 2012 9:11 pm

    Aw, what a great way to go out, Minivan! I really, really enjoyed this book. I am worried, though, that I have forgotten all the nuances from it and will be lost when the sequel comes out this May (yay for a quick sequel release!). Basically, though, I love everything Mantel writes 🙂

    • March 8, 2012 7:49 am

      There were nuances; when I paged through the book looking for the places that struck me when I listened to it, I noticed a number of passages in which Thomas used something he’d learned from Wolsey (even the tapestry of Sheba was a metaphor for that). But who did what to who was so clear it shouldn’t be hard to pick up the story as it goes on. She’s obviously got to get to the last of Henry’s wives…

  9. March 7, 2012 11:55 pm

    I have this book but haven’t read it yet. I have a hard time getting around to chunskters unless the mood is right. Listening to it on audio would be a huge under-taking, though. I say that because I don’t really listen to audio books…

  10. March 8, 2012 7:52 am

    It is a long book (532 pages), but good for picking up and putting down a lot, or listening to in 10-15 minute increments. I like really long books–always have. When I was a kid, the public library limited kids to ten books at a time, so I’d get the biggest books they had. I chose books that way for years! You can get really immersed in a story when it goes on for longer.

  11. March 8, 2012 6:00 pm

    I always enjoy your introductions to your book reviews … and how your books into your personal life.

  12. March 14, 2012 7:30 am

    I loved this book and am so excited for the sequel (although obviously worried about where in history it will end). I’m a Cromwell fan (Thomas and Oliver at least) and could have wept for his end in The Tudors version of these events, even though I knew it was coming. He really wanted to free us all in a way (making it easier for people to engage with religion and evade the control of the church), even though he went about some things in a less than good way.

    • March 14, 2012 12:27 pm

      I’ll bet she’s going to engage in some fictional consideration of which ends justify which means.

      I think some Americans get caught up in the cavalier poetry version of events, rather than the Oliver Cromwell Puritan version. Maybe that’s just reaction to the puritan streak that persists in our culture.

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