The very first thing I chose to read after finishing my hard, hard Masters dissertation was the very wonderful Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
While the sequel, Bring up the Bodies astoundingly repeats the success of its predecessor and also won the Booker prize, this is not why I chose to read Wolf. Well, it was mostly not that.
It was for the most part because Hilary Mantel received her honorary degree from Exeter University at the same ceremony that I received my (honoured but not strictly honorary) undergraduate degree last year.
I was touched to hear Hilary Mantel talk about how beautiful Devon is in her speech at my graduation, and her deep connection with the wild West Country. Mantel spoke of the history at Exeter- a deep well from which fiction and inspiration could be drawn. Of the promise she had felt as a graduate, and the promise she sensed from the ex-students in the room with her.
I remember the shuffled embarrassment I shared with the few other English Literature graduates who had also failed to read her Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall.
But I didn’t get a chance all year! I promise…
So while a weighty, award-winning historical tome of fiction may not be the usual choice for a wind-down read, I leapt at the chance to lose myself in Mantel’s Tudor world. And I am so very glad that I did.
This book deserves to be every bit as decorated as it is. While I took a little while to accept and adjust to the superhuman prowess of Mantel’s protagonist, I soon became completely lost in a world both familiar and completely alien.
Wolf Hall conveys a sense of Tudor England which is new and also very old: Mantel’s London is every bit as Catholic as the cities of France and Spain- effigies and prayers dominate the streets and there is a real sense of almost Mediterranean emotion and gesticulation.
The world of Cromwell, Mantel’s shady and accomplished protagonist, is one which is at once reigned over by God-blessed kings decked in gold and also one manipulated by shadowy deals undertaken by unknown merchants, money traders and political aspirants in taverns.
Wolf Hall encircles the story of Henry VIII’s first earth-shattering divorce in the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell- a fictional self-made man who enters the courtly company of prominent historical figures such as Jane Seymore, the Boleyns and Stephen Gardner.
An intimate telling of a story we all know.
Detailing the well-trodden steps of Tudor history newly with the earthy perspective of a Tudor man, Mantel reveals to us a London with familiar road-names, but unfamiliar roads. A world with surprisingly familiar faces.