I read Wolf Hall for the first time in 2010 and wrote a glowing review whilst I was still actually reading the book. I read it on my kindle and whilst I was travelling around the country for work and couldn’t put it down. I read whilst on trains, on platforms, in hotel room or wherever I found myself with half an hour or so to spare.
Before the start of the series Wolf Hall on the BBC (with Mark Rylance as Cromwell) I wanted to reread the book, also because it is on the list for the book club. This time I bought the paperback: some books really warrant holding in your hands and being able to go back and to check on the who’s who at the beginning. I enjoyed reading it for the second time as much as that first time and being able to watch the BBC series was simply the icing on the cake. The tv series however also covered the second book, Bring Up the Bodies, which I also reread for good measure.
The books are intriguing in various aspects. There is of course the depiction of Cromwell as a fairly sympathetic and clever person who manoeuvres himself and his family and close relations through a court environment where he gains the confidence Henry VIII, even tough he is someone from a very low background and is mocked by courtiers and noblemen for that reason. This sympathetic portrayal goes against the way Thomas Cromwell has usually been depicted, as a man who is more of a villain and who persecutes Thomas More, and whose painted portrait by which we know him does him no favours at all.
Secondly, there is the risky business of making a very well-known time period and the quarrel between Henry VIII and the church into something that grabs your attention all over again, because of the way the period is now presented by Mantel.
The BBC series did all this perfectly, of course, this representation of the characters and the era. I’ve become a great admirer of Mark Rylance, because of the way he was able to convey feelings and thoughts simply by looking and by letting his face do all the ‘talking’, without uttering a word. That was brilliant.
And of course, there is Mantel’s extraordinary writing, and her use of the present tense: Mantel invites us into the very presence of Cromwell, as if we’re there with him, referring to Cromwell as ‘he’ and sometimes, to avoid confusion as to who is actually meant to be talking or thinking or acting, ‘he, Cromwell’. This, and the use of present tense, draws us right into the room with him.
It is this writing style of Hilary Mantel’s that is so very unique and seemingly effortless, and which makes it worth reading the books again and again. As writers, we can learn a lot from her.