My oldest and dearest friend from growing up in D.C. recently urged me most vociferously to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, published in 2009. It is the story of the years leading up to Henry VIII’s battle with Rome over the status of his marriage. Most historical novels see great events through characters on the periphery of the actions of leading characters. In Mantel’s book (and its 2012 sequel, Bring Up the Bodies), the leading characters are at center stage, with protagonist Thomas Cromwell offering his advice to Henry (and before him Cardinal Wolsey) in the matter of Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Mantel – the first woman to win two Booker prizes – is a subtle and articulate historian. Here, she makes the walls speak in a way that will delight lovers of classical architecture:
He [Cromwell] imagines the cardinal among the canons at Southwell, in his chair in the chapter house, presiding beneath the high vaulting like a prince at his ease in some forest glade, wreathed by carvings of leaves and flowers. They are so supple that it is as if the columns, the ribs have quickened, as if stone has burst into florid life; the capitals are decked with berries, finials are twisted stems, roses entangle the shafts, flowers and seeds flourish on one stalk; from the foliage, faces peer, the faces of dogs, of hares, of goats. There are human faces, too, so lifelike that perhaps they can change their expression; perhaps they stare down, astonished, at the portly scarlet form of his patron; and perhaps in the silence of the night, when the canons are sleeping, the stone men whistle and sing.
Cardinal Wolsey is narrator Cromwell’s patron, but the cardinal is on the outs with Henry, and Cromwell is trying to latch onto Henry’s court without too obviously putting Wolsey’s comradeship in the past. I am riveted to this book, and would be reading it at this moment, but I am also interested in providing top-quality edification for readers of this blog. Enjoy! (And you can get the book here.)