Michaeline: Wolf Hall and the Journey with a Well-Known End

Thomas Cromwell sitting at a table covered with a beautiful green fabric. A book is by his side, with writing quill, letters, and broken seals.
Thomas Cromwell, the main character of Wolf Hall, was a practical commoner with a genius for languages and people. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s interesting to think about how stories grab our attention and propel us along through the pages until the end.

When I was a kid, I read mostly fantasy and fairy tales. The point was to find out what happened – although, I often cheated and checked out the last pages of the book to make sure it was a happy, satisfying ending. Even as a very young reader, I wanted a HEA, and I disliked cliffhangers – after all, I was in a small town 90 miles away from a Waldenbooks, so if there was a sequel, I needed to know I could get it soon.

But the romance genre isn’t really about the ending; it’s about the journey. Most romance writers make sure the reader knows who the main couple is, and it’s not in the romance genre unless the writer establishes a relationship that looks like it is going to last.

OK, digression, some romance writers like to play with the genre. I’m thinking of Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. If you haven’t read it, it’s a masterclass in playfulness. SPOILER: there is a HEA, but it’s not with the delightful, handsome rogue.

I’m reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel this week. It’s about Thomas Cromwell in the time of Henry the VIII and Anne Boleyn. It won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, and the language is a bit dense (though very smooth and easy to read). The plot is not a thrill a minute, and the writer stays far away from the romance between Henry and Anne . . . because we all know it’s going to turn out with Anne getting her head chopped off.

So why read it?

Thomas Cromwell is obscure enough in my American-educated mind that I’m not quite sure what happens to him, unless I cheat and look at Wikipedia. So far, I’ve been very good, and have just looked up pictures and events after they’ve happened. I’ve only read half of the Wikipedia entry on Anne Boleyn, too.

The book got raves from various reviewers when it came out, but it’s been sitting in my TBR pile for 10 years because “Thomas Cromwell” doesn’t sound like it could possibly be interesting. It sounds like homework.

However, Mantel shows a lot of love for Thomas. She shows bits of his difficult childhood, hints at his adventurous youth on the continent as a soldier and wanderer, and gives him a warm but tragic family life. He can build community, which is one reason he’s so valuable to the rich and powerful.

All the while, there’s this thread of Henry VIII trying to dump his wife and marry Anne Boleyn throbbing in the background. We know it will not end well; history books tell us so. But HOW it happened is full of tricky twists and complicated politics, and Mantel presents the story well through Thomas’s eyes.

The book is like a romance in that way – we know how it’s going to end up. It’s the mechanics of getting there, and the charisma of the characters that make the journey worth taking.

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: Wolf Hall and the Journey with a Well-Known End

  1. Hello MD, I have recently finished the third book in this series and I adore how Mantel has presented Thomas Cromwell. Because it seems that historically, he is not beloved. To me it appeared (from Mantel’s perspective) that he was a strongly moralistic man, in difficult times, in a powerful position through his own efforts – he wanted to support his King and country, but knew that how the King expected things to happen wasn’t always the best way. And with it seemed anybody who opposed the monarchy at risk of being killed, then Thomas did the best he could with that. he appears to be a genius (and to be fair, Henry VIII also seems very talented). My reading tastes are fairly simple. Crime and Thrillers, Stephen King and Anne Rice are stalwarts of my bookshelves. If the book has won an award like the Booker, the chances are I don’t even attempt it. The reason these books win are typically based on rhapsodies of their magic with language – and not necessarily the story, or characters. So, I’ve loved this series. Book 1, Wolf Hall, stands as the strongest of the three and the third (IMO) is the 2nd best. The characters and their journey make this series.

    • Oh, that’s good to know! One of the very nice things about leaving this on my TBR for so long is that I won’t have to wait to get the whole trilogy! That era was so complicated, and sometimes I just throw up my hands and think, “Well, they were all drinking beer and wine because the water was bad, so of course some bad choices were made.”

      But after the last decade, it’s easy to see that some bad choices can be made without blaming it on alcohol.

      The book is clarifying things quite well.

  2. I haven’t read the book(s), but there’s a great PBS mini-series (six episodes, I think) that won a Peabody and Golden Globe. It stars Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII in his thin years. I found it a fascinating look at history from the point of view of an important but not center-stage historical figure. As you say, because we know in broad strokes what happens, the story is about the journey.

    • Oh, I love a mini-series! It’s not such a commitment like a full season of something is, but it’s more satisfying than a couple of hours. I may have to see if I can find that on my streaming service.

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