Cromwell, Tudor England come alive in Booker winning epic (IANS Book Review)

October 8th, 2009 - 2:45 pm ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
Book: Wolf Hall; Author: Hilary Mantel; Publisher: HarperCollins-India

England in the 1520s is a heartbeat away from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country will be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of 20 years and marry Anne Boleyn.

The pope and most of Europe oppose him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys the pope’s advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.

Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. The son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a bully and a charmer, Cromwell breaks all rules of a rigid society in his rise to power.

Rising from the ashes of personal disaster - Cromwell pits himself against parliament, the political establishment and the papacy and is ready to redraw England to his own and King Henry’s desires.

Hilary Mantel’s novel “Wolf Hall”, which wrested the 50,000 pounds Man Booker Prize for 2009 Tuesday, beating a rival by a margin of one vote in a secret ballot, explores individual psychologies with the wider politics of Tudor England.

It is thickly populated - teeming with life, characters, locales, action and colours of 16th century England - in the true tradition of a historical epic. It peels back history to show that Tudor England was a half made society.

Published by HarperCollins-India, the paperback edition of the book available in India is priced at 8.25 pounds.

The book begins with a series of family trees. Street-smart Thomas, who ran away from home at Putney after being beaten to pulp by a drunken Walter, is described as one “who is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard” as he rises through the ranks.

He marries Liz Wykys, a divorcee, and builds a home at Austin Friars in London.

The first chapter, “Across the Narrow Sea, Putney 1500″, is a racy account of young Thomas Cromwell’s life with dad Walter.

The language is contemporary and lucid - almost like an action thriller. This is a book that Mantel “hesitated for 20 years before writing”.

The book is mammoth in scope - taking into its swathe a wide array of characters, each more striking than the other, more scandalous and nifty in an essentially “dog -eat-dog” medieval England, where tough men survived by their wits. King Henry was making new history of the heart that went against the political grain of matrimonial alliances.

Perhaps the most riveting section of the book is “An Occult History of Britain”.

It throws light on the barbaric ways of early England - frequent wars and the undercurrents of viciousness that marked the rise of new power-heads like Thomas More and subsequently Thomas Cromwell.

“Once in the days of time immemorial, there was a king of Greece who had 33 daughters. Each of these daughters rose up in revolt and murdered their husbands. Perplexed as to how he had bred such rebels, but not wanting to kill his own flesh, he set them adrift on a rudderless ship. They landed on an island shrouded in mist - and as it had no name, the eldest of the 33 gave it her own name, Albina. The island was home only to demons. The 33 princesses mated with the demons and gave birth to a race of giants who in turn mated with their mothers and gave birth to more giants.”

There was no priest, no law, no churches and no way of telling the time on Albina - the early England.

The great grandson of Aeneas, Brutus was born in Italy and was orphaned early. He fled Italy and became the leader of a band of men who were slaves in Troy.

They were driven to Albina’s coast, where they fought the giants, defeated them and ruled till the coming of the Romans.

“Whichever way you look at it”, the history of England begins with slaughter, says Mantel.

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