52 Good Books

Book Review – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Picture this: It’s the early 1500’s, Henry VIII is pondering the limitations of being stuck with one wife for the rest of his life and Anne Boleyn is starting to trot down the path that will divest her of her head. The scene is set for the story of Wolf Hall.

Scrolling through my audio book…

Hilary Mantel’s book won the Man Booker prize when it was originally published in 2009. Told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, one of the King’s courtiers, this is the story of how Britain turned protestant. Just think, if Henry hadn’t been so set on marrying again, we might all live in a very different place today.

I decided to borrow the library’s audio book this week and I kind of regretted it. Whilst I love audio books in general, there were a lot of characters in this and reading an actual book might have helped me to flick back and work out who they were when I got confused. Also, whilst I eventually speeded up the reading speed, the narrator spoke much more slowly than I read which lead to the feeling of the story dragging a little.

The reign of Henry VIII is a period in history which probably gets talked about more than any other (barring wars etc), largely because it is so pivotal. When I started reading I was familiar with the “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” timeline of Henry’s wives, so Mantel’s story felt pregnant with anticipation when Catherine and Anne were introduced. ‘I know where you’re going to end up’ I thought, but I didn’t anticipate everything that this book had in store. I was definitely surprised by the licentiousness of Anne Boleyn. I know she was ultimately beheaded for adultery, but I had assumed that the allegation was false and that Henry had just had enough of her. This book paints her in a very different light. Willful, stubborn and conceited, Anne didn’t sound like a particularly desirable woman to me. I almost felt sorry for Henry and this was the last emotion I was expecting to feel towards this notorious womaniser. Mantel depicted him as affable and sensitive; as a regular guy, who just happened to don a crown and was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hmm… the jury may still be out on this!

Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. Image belongs to the National Portrait Gallery

All in all Wolf Hall was a great grounding in the story of Henry’s early reign. I don’t know if it’s because I listed to the audio book rather than reading, but whilst I enjoyed the story I’m not sure I would have had it pegged as a Man Booker prize winner. But it’s a plunge into history nevertheless. If this is a period of history that you too are interested in, then Wolf Hall is just the ticket!

After reading the book, and with no prior planning at all, I ended up visiting Hever Castle yesterday. This is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. I was very pleased with my timely visit. Hever Castle has stunning grounds and the museum within the house has some very interesting bits. Here’s a transcript of Anne Boleyn’s last ever letter to Henry:

Next week I will be reading City of Dust by Michelle Kenney which is soon to hit the shelves of your local bookshop. Come back on Monday to see what I make of this trendy bit of YA fantasy.

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