No apologies for a post about as long as the reign of Henry VIII because this is a vast book and I don't seem able to do it justice on the turn of a groat. Also today I go to hear Hilary Mantel talk about Wolf Hall (or Woofle as Book Hound has christened this permanent feature around the house) in the highly charged and atmospheric surroundings of the Great Hall at Dartington with the Tilting Yard outside. Hilary Mantel on my list of passionate and inspiring LitFest speakers who must never be missed under any circumstances and doubtless I'll come away with all the right answers.
In the end there was only one reading method that seemed to suit Wolf Hall.
Sitting on the bed with the book well-propped and a plate of bacon toasted lark's tongue sandwiches and a pot of tea to hand, which is why, after 650 pages I might have been the size of Henry VIII but for that fact this has taken weeks of reading, so I've done a lot of other things in between.
In fact the whole process has been not unlike a Tudor royal progress, timely and measured with lots of treats and stop-overs along the way.
But how pleased am I with myself for turning the final page when in the early days I quite thought my lack of Tudor insider info was going to be my downfall. Much of what I thought I knew can only have come from the pen of Jean Plaidy about forty years ago. I wanted to be a nurse, this didn't seem important, but take heart any fellow history lesson slackers, you'll have it all at your gem-encrusted fingertips by the end.
Once I got a grip and waded in it was like visiting a house full of semi-strangers. After a few days you start to get to know them, know what happens at the dinner table and about the washing up, whose turn it is to use the shower and by the end you're pledging to meet up every year.
In fact Henry gets to use the shower first, but 300 pages in I suddenly realised I had become part of the furniture, I knew everyone, knew which house I was walking into and who might be there, knew who to trust and who not, the first half slotted into place perfectly and I wanted to strangle Anne Boleyn but probably won't have to (sorry spoiler).
I also understood Henry VIII in a way that I hadn't before having previously picked up all the gouty off-with-her-head myth and mystery down the years, but perhaps not the true desperation and turmoil of the inner man.
The cast is vast, almost one hundred characters and if Hilary Mantel used Post-it notes for plotting their whereabouts then I hope she has shares, because Wolf Hall feels like an awesome accomplishment, a feat of huge narrative daring and complexity. There is word alchemy and rare sleight of pen afoot here because it's beyond me to describe how it's done, but to make a reader feel like a participant in this emerging social world, a world still trying to find its feet and know its direction, feels like true writerly, spell-weaving magic to me.
I shouldn't even really try and pronounce on events of which I know so little but it would seem England and Agincourt are history, the glory days are done and not for the first time before or since has the country sunk into something of an embarrassing and parlous state.
None of this helped by Henry's desperation for a son and heir and his slithery wriggling out of the marriage to Katharine of Aragon with some very devious manoeuvring, thence to pick up with Ann Boleyn, the tease of the century. After six years of waiting (might be seven) Henry like a slavering dog by the time Ann is finally installed on the throne and into the Royal bed.
When the baby arrives and it's a Princess, Henry does at least shout call it Elizabeth and asks if she's healthy before heading off hunting or jousting or something.
Meanwhile in the background, easing whoever needs to be eased, plotting the downfall of those who stand in the King's way, oiling whichever wheels seem to fit the courtly bicycle (and I thought about that analogy) at any given moment, Thomas Cromwell.
Don't for goodness' sake ask a history klutz like me to be able to have honestly known the difference between Thomas and Oliver Cromwell if you'd asked me to explain. I'd have waffled on about Roundheads, warts and the Civil War for one and known nothing of the other.
Thomas Cromwell, sometime Henry's right hand Mr Fix-It, apparently much-maligned by history but re-visited by Hilary Mantel as a man with a heart and soul, borne of an abusive childhood, stalked by tragedy, yet a caring father-figure to his children and countless other waifs and strays. Always with an eye for the shrewd move around Court, the blacksmith's son who does indeed 'make his own tools', it is Thomas whose life is central to this book, a man whose perception of self seems greatly at odds with how others see him, his dismay is unwritten but evident when his son confirms that he does indeed look like a murderer.
'A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face.It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.'
Always Hilary Mantel seems to offer perfectly good and logical reasons for Cromwell's behaviour, often episodes from his past,
'One fear creates a dereliction, the offence brings on a greater fear, and there comes a point when the fear is too great and the human spirit just gives up and a child wanders off numb and directionless and ends up following a crowd and watching a killing.'
I was verging on tears towards the end as Thomas Cromwell searches
in vain to find an honourable way out for the incarcerated Thomas More,
a principled but cruel and deeply flawed man, hell-bent on heaven but overtly terrified about quite what variety of punitive death will transport him there. No matter who's about to be thwarted in love or political ambition, char-grilled or parted from their innards, the light and the shadows always reflect well on Thomas Cromwell and, even in the final analysis, the light falls favourably on those like More who it's hard not to have loathed from the off.
Hilary Mantel makes quite sure we understand why, often by saying very little indeed.
That apart there is so much more to say it could take me the reign of Elizabeth I too, but this being me, I loved the costumes and the textures of the fabrics and those discreetly conjured up wardrobe details offering something quite sumptuous and special.
Someone walks into a room, hops onto a barge or heads for front-row seats at the disembowelling in suitable raiment; a Lemster wool jacket or sable trimmings, gowns of figured damask, a black wool cape with lambskin lining (I want one) and then Hilary Mantel adds in a snippet of crimson velvet or some tawny silk to assuage my need to feel a book like this between my fingers.
Picture Lord Rochford doing this and be there,
...what fascinates him is the flame-coloured satin that is pulled through his slashed velvet over-sleeve. He keeps coaxing little puffs of fabric with a fingertip, pleating and nudging them to grow bigger, so that he looks like one of those jugglers who runs balls down their arms.'
Other characters gained momentum as I came to know them, the blustering Duke of Norfolk could always be relied on for some brash abrasiveness, almost a comic character, then Thomas Wriothesley, known throughout as Call-Me-Risley and I was there and basking in this entire Tudor innovation, because this book is history made fresh, both renewed and different.
Sequels are promised and we can but keep calm and wait patiently when really I feel like jumping up and down and wanting the next book yesterday.
Right, now, before I dash off across Dartmoor we have to talk about the Booker Prize, the long list announcement just eleven days hence.
If Wolf Hall doesn't at least make the long list followed swiftly by the shortlist then England is fast sinking into another of those embarrassing and parlous declines for sure, the ravens might as well scoot from the Tower because we're done for. Books like this don't come along every day, this is a literary Agincourt... now what a fine and muddled historical mess I'm getting in.
I'll stop there and be back with news of what Wolf Hall is really about soon.