The 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award goes to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This historical novel claimed last year’s Man Booker Prize and although I have not read it myself I believe it must be an incredible read. In the month leading up to the NBCC award winner announcement, Critical Mass (the official NBCC blog), posted a series of posts entitled 30 Books in 30 Days which provided reviews of the work of the thirty finalists. The 30 Books in 30 Days post for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a magnificent article. Here is an excerpt:
“It’s the story of the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell, who emerged from humble origins to become one of the richest and most powerful men in Tudor England. Brilliant, hardworking, and competent, Cromwell caught the attention of Henry VIII, who made him his confidante, his chief secretary, his Lord Privy Seal, and in time a nobleman–all before sending him, as Henry sent so many of his confidantes and capable administrators, to the executioner’s block. In the process of telling the enthralling tale of Cromwell’s early years, Mantel takes the hoary genre of historical fiction, turns it on its head, and makes it as fresh and new as the latest of postmodern fiction.
She finds the other side of that story and gives us a man whose politics were far ahead of his time, a humanitarian and social radical who is as loving to his family and friends as he is harsh to those he opposes. Her Cromwell “is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inns yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon. Draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Lawyer and financier, he’s a master of languages, an admirer of Latin poetry, an adoring husband and father, a man who can speak truth to power, brandish a stiletto, cook up a gingery eel sauce, evaluate the worth of an oriental rug, and stay loyal to his friends even when the rest of the world shuns them. More, he’s efficient. “My sins are my strength,” he ruminates. “The sins I have done, that others have not even found the opportunity of committing. I hug them close; they’re mine. Besides, when I come to judgment I mean to come with a memorandum in my hands; I shall say to my Maker, I have fifty items here, possibly more.” What a man to get to know!
Why is the book called Wolf Hall when Wolf Hall, the ancestral home of Jane Seymour, who will be Henry’s third wife, figures only minimally in the narrative? Yes, there’s a passage about the scandalous shenanigans at the manor, where Jane’s father is having an affair with her brother’s young wife. And yes, there’s a mention of the Latin saying homo homini lupus. “Man is wolf to man.” Some critics have attempted to explain the title by focusing on one or the other of these references, speculating that the book is called Wolf Hall because the doings at the estate indicate that the English nobility was so depraved it could not rule, or that the Latin proverb indicates the lesson to be drawn from the period’s invidious politics. But to me it seems far more likely that the title is another of the author’s cunning tricks. The book ends with Mantel’s Cromwell noting in his diary that he is about to make an excursion to Wolf Hall. It is after this excursion that history’s Cromwell will reach the height of his aspirations, becoming virtually royal by wedding his son to the future queen’s sister, and it is after that grand slam that his mighty career will begin to unravel. The book, like Cromwell, goes to Wolf Hall. What happens afterward is the subject of the sequel Mantel is planning.”
Go on over to Critical Mass to read the full article: 30 Books in 30 Days: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel