It took me a whole month to read this, partly because I kept re-reading bits to drink it in properly, and partly because I kept stopping and taking a break because it was all too much!
Even now, a few days after I finished, I am somewhat at a loss as to how to review it. I think the best thing to do is to try to write a short, useful review, for anyone who was thinking of reading it, and the after that put my own rambling views.
So, the short version:
This is a superbly written, thoroughly engaging book. Despite its size and subject matter it is not difficult to read and the evenings flew by for me as I was totally immersed in Mantel’s Tudor world. I have read a fair few historical novels in my time but none have ever come close to the clarity of the Wolf Hall trilogy, which made me feel so utterly convinced by the reality of it. I came out of it feeling that if I had a time machine and went back to that time it would be exactly as she describes.
In addition to this vivid backdrop the scope of human behaviour, experience and feeling depicted is phenomenal and compelling. I will definitely hold on to all three books for a future re-read one day.
The long version:
My main observation about it was the way the narcissistic despot Henry VIII just uses people up. It made me think of that footage of Saddam Hussain in a room just giving orders and various of his advisors being taken out of the room on his command to be shot.
I put off reading the final chapters of the book because I couldn’t bear it. However, Cromwell himself is no saint, and in the end was undone by the same processes he himself used, no trial, just rumour and circumstance used to convict him. I remember being quite upset in the previous books when he destroyed those men around Anne Boleyn. What sticks with me most is the fact that if someone was a commoner they would be hung, drawn and quartered, but if they were ‘noble’ then they would get the swift option. This constant contrast between the rights of the commoner and the nobility was a theme, and it was Cromwell’s background as much as his religious leanings that earned him enemies that brought him down. The hardest bit to take was the betrayal of some of those closest to him, and the others that left the sinking ship, and the speed with which it all happened.
What a terrifying time to be alive. It seems those final years of Henry’s reign were genuinely a reign of terror, and whilst I feel kind of triumphant that the Howards were brought low very quickly after Cromwell (Katherine Howard was executed, Jane Rochford was executed, Surrey was executed, and his father Norfolk imprisoned in the Tower for much of his later years, though the wily bastard escaped execution by a twist of fate) it is a horrible fate for them all. Such high stakes and such violent ends.
I remember studying the Tudors at school, and I can see why it is considered an important part of our history. There is a whiff of the modern world being born. The fact that people could rise from being a kitchen hand to a powerful advisor, based on merit and ambition, that there also is a growing merchant class, and providing a Bible in English so the common people could understand it, and breaking the manipulative stranglehold of the Church and reforming the government. And at the same time the old world fighting back viciously.
Henry’s reign itself is a fascinating, contradictory time of wavering, changing religious doctrine, and the years that come after it, well, first it’s a death sentence to be a Catholic, then it’s a death sentence to be a Protestant then back again. The only way to get through it was probably to keep your head down and just go along with whatever was in favour. One of the enduring mysteries to me is that Cromwell was so helpful to Mary. I thought this was well covered in the books, depicting that actually he genuinely didn’t want her to die, and didn’t want Henry to have her executed, as he would regret it, and that all these relationships and machinations were full of grey areas and apparent contradictions. But at the same time I found myself mumbling away at the book “don’t bother, she’s a monster when she’s Queen, just let him execute her”.
There were some great depictions of women as well, as women were undoubtedly a huge feature of the time, though mainly via their bodies. Poor Anne of Cleves, humiliatingly rejected, Jane Seymour, such a short life, and then of course Katherine Howard, a pawn in Norfolk’s game, would come to a violent end while still a teenager. Look at the start of page 507 – it is so beautifully observed and described I read it a few times.
And take time to look through the names and family trees at the beginning. I had to keep referring back to them. They even have categories for ‘the recently dead’ and ‘in the Tower of London’. I could have done with updated versions at various points through the book to keep up with it as both lists frequently changed.
Grim but fascinating reading.