Wolf Hall, which I just finished reading, if I wasn’t woman, more importantly, a married woman. After all, if I am truly honest, it wasn’t Mantel’s rags-to-riches account of Thomas Cromwell’s life that kept me going through the 650 pages without a stop. No, it was Mantel’s deliciously monstrous image of the husband-stealing Anne Boleyn that had me obsessively turning over the pages.
For those who spent 2009 on Planet Pluto, Wolf Hall was last year’s Man Booker prize winner. It is a semi-fictionalised account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, an English commoner who rose to become Henry VIII’s closed confidante as he conspired to replace his ageing, dumpy wife, Catherine of Aragon, with the bootylicious Anne Boleyn. As a fall-out of this tricky wife-swapping, England broke ties with Catholic Rome, reformed the Anglican Church and accredited Protestantism in England.
Mantel remained faithful to the chronology of the actions and events. However, she let loose her imagination when giving personalities to the different characters. And boy! Is her Anne Boleyn evil? She is cold and calculating about sex, deadly in exacting revenge, grasping about wealth (read: palaces, jewellery, and titles, especially if they belonged to Catherine of Aragon) and a master at scheming. In short, she is your Grade A Mistress-From-Hell. Even King Henry VIII is a tinsy-bit scared of her. It is almost as if Mantel wants you to be standing there cheering when Boleyn meets the guillotine (for which, by the way, we will have to wait for the sequel. This novel ends with Anne’s second miscarriage and the general souring-up of Henry and Anne’s sex life.)
Strangely, Mantel even takes away credit from Boleyn where it is due. Most accounts of Boleyn – especially, if they arise from the feminist cauldron – tend to present her as a refined woman, genuinely concerned about the corrupt Catholic clergy, knowledgeable in international diplomacy, and generous towards her sister Mary. (Apparently, Anne granted her sister a life-long pension despite the fact that she was a former mistress of Henry VIII.) However, Mantel reduces Anne’s erudition to her merely passing some of William Tyndale’s writings to Henry VIII, and her experience in international diplomacy to a dinner and dance with the French King. Mantel’s Anne was a belittling bitch to her sister and she gives credit of Mary's pension to Thomas Cromwell's interjection.
To insult to injury, Mantel introduces Jane Seymour – for whom Henry VIII so spectacularly dumped Anne – as a rather simple, sweet soul with a generous heart. So good eventually won over evil, and all was well in the world again.
Why would Mantel do that? I believe she did it in order to provide maximum pleasure to her married, female readership. Can there be a purer, sweeter pleasure than in encountering the perfectly hateful “other woman” and then see her receive her comeuppance in form of beheading? After all, if Sid ever dumped me for another woman, I wouldn't be able to imagine her as anything but purely evil, and nothing short of her severed head would satisfy me. In fact, make that two ;-)
You can buy Wolf Hall on Amazon here.