In fact, I read 3 Jilly Cooper novels almost without pause. I was unstoppable. My kindle meant no sooner did I finish one then I could buy another and continue my grubby journey through countryside smut. The pure fact is, I adore Jilly Cooper. I’m not going to subject you to a post on her (if you’re any sort of a reader you’ll have read her anyway, forget the classics of world literature). But I will say that those books give me just as much pleasure as, thought of a different kind to, those classics. It is quite irresistible to read of emotionally damaged men with strong thighs riding spirited, characterful horses across acres of cowsparsley and meadowsweet (the kind of plants that are ubiquitous in Jilly world), with their plucky, impulsive groom dreaming of national stardom and happiness with said damaged man. I couldn’t resist 10 years ago, and I can’t resist now.
However, there are only so many dew-drenched hedges smothered with honeysuckle that you can take. And the violent, dirty Tudor world of intrigue was a welcome respite from characters who exclusively drink Moet and eat smoked salmon.
A starting word to the wise – Wolf Hall is the first of THREE novels on this character/period (the third still being written). This will come as a nasty surprise if, like me, you’re not aware and munch through 700 pages to find the book suddenly ending just when everything is hotting up.
However, there is more than enough juicy meat and virtuoso writing in Wolf Hall to keep you fully occupied.
The protagonist, Thomas Cromwell (NOT Oliver Cromwell, people) is a historical figure in the reign of Henry VIII (I just made the hideous error of Wikipedia’ing him and finding at least 2 key details I definitely shouldn’t know about until book 2. Damn history.) In the duration of Wolf Hall, no spoiler, he is a political and practical adviser on all things – and I do mean all things. There is nothing this man doesn’t cover: clothing, war, trade, relationships, food, politics, incest. This multitasking brilliance is profoundly satisfying. It makes you long to dredge him up and set him in charge of your life – riches, fame, contacts and all the rest would be sure to ensue. As you can tell from this flight of fancy, Mantel’s depiction of this man is nothing short of stunning in its vividness and power. You truly see, admire, and understand this taciturn, practical but morally changeable man from 500 years ago – not at first sight a character a modern reader can easily identify with.
All of the characters, from king to servant, are brought brightly to life with the sort of details that remind you of the unchanging universality of human nature – you remember that humankind was no different 500 years ago, and that there are people just like them shlepping around the country today, their unchanging natures cloaked by their modern backdrop of office and apartment blocks.
Like me, I expect most modern readers will have a patchily remembered account of Tudor history in their heads, with only the details of the sticky end of Henry’s wives standing out with clarity. And this murky framework is a perfect background, giving you chilly foreboding without certainty about exactly what’s going to happen, driving you forward. But if I’d learnt Tudor history through this book, I guarantee I’d have remembered a darn sight more than I currently do. Forget lectures or films – writing like this drives the reality and complexity of history to your mind in a way that even a turn-around-a-ghetto-school-inspirational-teacher could only dream of. Due to the multiplicity of bits and pieces that our protagonist (but not necessarily hero) turns his hands to, Wolf Hall presents a highly rich and varied picture of the time and world in which it’s set, a colourful but balanced world without dewy nostalgia or overblown blood’n’guts. I say, add it to the syllabus! Then students like I was will stop reading Jilly Cooper under their desks in history* lessons.
* Maths and Chemistry can forget it.