Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Book review: Wolf Hall

I re-read Wolf Hall and enjoyed it again. The Goodreads reviews I've linked to give a reasonable spread of opinions; most who hated it get tripped up by the "he" business but I liked it. Mantell uses "he" for Cromwell even when the syntax would have it referring to one of the other men; this is surprisingly hard to avoid tripping on, even when you know it; but that's good: it keeps you awake.  I found the first perhaps two-thirds engrossing, and read past midnight several nights; the fourth fifth perhaps dragged a little; and the end picks up again. And, although this is generally a serious book, I should pick out the comedy with the French alchemists (p 404 in my edition; again p 410) as superb (Should you not wipe their table? Eh, I may as well wait until they've spilt the second jug). Although, really, said alchemists are nearly irrelevant to the main book, and the attempt to tie in the memory machine is weak.

I realised eventually that a large part of what I liked was vicariously enjoying not just Cromwell's success but a world well run. Cromwell, as presented in the book, simply knows how to do things, how to get things done. And so, when given authority, he manages to work things out. Under Cromwell, Brexit wouldn't have happened. This presents such a lovely contrast with our own world, where those politically in charge seem incompetent. He's also good at bringing up his staff. And this is a beginning of a period of transition, from rule-by-aristocrat to a more bureaucratic system; we get to see that happening.

Cromwell is perhaps too omni-competent: speaks all languages, knows how to do all things, always explained by his travellings as a youth; but maybe it's survivorship bias. And he (and Wolsey) are presented as having little personal direction other than serving the king. Which brings us to Henricus Rex, who is the most mysterious figure in the book: where does he get his energy, his drive, his certainty, from?

On the central matter of the book, Henry's desire for a son to settle the succession, and hence his need for another marriage: this is all such a tragedy of lack of theory and failure to see beyond the commonplace. Eventually they get the right answer: the succession can be set by act of will of the king, since the king is sovereign (see Hobbes; but sadly they didn't have Hobbes yet). The Key Insight about the succession is that is must be certain, in order to avoid civil war. But that's all it needs to be. It can be certain by being the king's eldest son; but in the absence of one, it can be just as certain by the king's clearly expressed will, and acts of parliament. Which is what they ended up doing.

However - and this despite the personal misery it brought to many people - the divorce, in that it brought about the split from Rome, and the challenging of papal authority, is a good thing; so perhaps avoiding it would have been bad.

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