Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wolf Hall Discussion

Kerry and I had a lovely tea and discussion of Wolf Hall on Monday, June 20. She arrived at noon and brought a lovely white tea blend she had picked up at a tea shop in Wisconsin; it was delightful. Anna loved it, too, and she has the rest with her at the Door County Renaissance Faire this weekend and last.

The Food 
-the menu changed just a tish the day of the tea; see recipes
Cucumber Sandwiches
Currant Scones with Devonshire Cream, Homemade Clotted Cream and Strawberry Jam
Lemon Cake
Honey Lace Cookies
White Tea

I found Devonshire Cream at our local co-op. It was so rich and creamy and had the most lovely mouth feel. I think the lusciousness of it was lost in the scone and Kerry and I decided we liked it best on a spoon with a dollop of strawberry jam. I didn't make "real" clotted cream because it takes a lot, a lot of time. I found a really delicious recipe for a "faux" clotted cream and we both preferred it. It is made by whipping heavy cream with mascarpone cheese, sugar, and vanilla. (But who liked it best? Mina: Kerry's 3 year-old daughter who joined us later in the afternoon - she and her dad got to go get cheese curds in Kalona while we had our tea and discussion. What fun it was to watch her eat it by dipping her fingers in the cream and licking them off.) We ended up eating the clotted cream on the lemon cake and in the honey lace cookies. Kerry said we could call it a "cream tea" since we ate cream with everything! mmmmm

The Discussion
First, like many readers before, we both struggled with the style of writing and relaxed use of pronouns until we got into the book. I had started the book last fall but put it away until this spring because I had too many things on my mind and couldn't concentrate.  This was not a book I could read quickly or when tired. When I gave it the time it is so worthy of, I was completely immersed in the world of Thomas Cromwell and the Tudors. If you are reading the book and finding that you are struggling, don't feel alone and trust that the reading will become more natural about 100 pages in and you will be transfixed. Both Kerry and I were sad to finish the book and are looking forward to the sequel. Even though we know how the story ends, it is fascinating to watch or hear it unfold.

Our discussion was mainly on the cast of characters and how they related to one another. Hilary Mantel turns everything we think we know about these famous characters from history on its head. We think one character is cruel; we end being sympathetic toward him. We have had sympathy for others; they are presented as cold and calculating.

Much of the book is told through dialogue whether between characters or the internal dialogue of Thomas Cromwell. Kerry and I loved Thomas Cromwell. In history, he has often been portrayed as ruthless, secretive, manipulative. Hilary Mantel presents him as a humble man who rose out of a impoverished childhood full of horrible abuse at the hands of his drunken father to become Henry VIII's most trusted adviser. He was a brilliant scholar, attentive and loving father and husband, and reformer. Why has history been so cruel to Cromwell? I am left wanting to learn more about him. We were both inspired to learn more about all the characters.

Also contradictory to history, Mantel portrays Henry VIII not as a tyrant, but a king yearning for truth and justice while being blind to the manipulative and greedy characters around him.

Manipulative characters like Anne Boleyn. Yikes, does she come across as a conniving witch. And indeed she was accused of being a witch! Anne, like rest of the cunning Boleyn's, is just out for herself. She uses all the tricks available to her to win the king's affection. She is a seductress. She is calculating. She is manipulative. Why does Henry put up with her yelling and cruelty and selfishness? Everyone else could see how awful she was, why not him?

And we ask ourselves, how could Henry have given up Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn? Catherine is presented in a sympathetic manner although not much time is given to her. Perhaps that is because all of the characters are presented from Cromwell's perspective and he obviously would not have spent much time with the Queen. First, Cromwell began as Cardinal Wolsey's secretary. Wolsey and Catherine begin the novel as enemies since he is trying to secure the king's divorce from Catherine. Second, it is Cromwell who eventually secures this divorce.

In the book, I also wondered how Henry could have chosen Anne over her sister Mary Boleyn. Henry VIII had a long-running affair with Mary that produced at least one child, many believe two. Poor Mary, we think. She is not portrayed as the "great whore" but as an innocent child led astray by her father and uncle. She's just looking for love, poor thing.

Cardinal Wolsey. Again, presented sympathetically. His grand and lavish lifestyle is not overlooked by Mantel; however, his motives are presented as true. He and Cromwell were very close and remain friends until Wolsey's death. Even after Wolsey's fall, Henry treats him with much compassion (Really? Who knew the tyrant king was so compassionate!) and funds the cardinal's living arrangements, including his reduced staff of nearly 200, until his death.

What I liked so much about Mantel's style is the depth and humanity she gives these characters. I had always viewed Henry VIII, his wives, and his court as cartoon characters! I grew up hearing silly details about their lives and I don't think ever learned the profound, profound changes that occurred during Henry VIII's reign: most notably to me, the reformation of the church in England. Even going to the library to get a book on Henry VIII, my only choices are books about him and his six wives.

And I never really knew anything about Thomas Cromwell. This man was amazing! At one point in the book, the comment is made that if no one else can get it done, then Cromwell can. He had an amazing intellect, understood the law and finances, politics, human nature. He was a great benefactor and employed hundreds in his household and helped secure jobs for others. He took in the homeless and orphans and made them part of his household.

Mantel is working on the sequel, The Mirror and the Light. I can't wait!

Please leave comments because there is so much to talk about!!! This is only what Kerry and I had a chance to discuss before we became sated with lemon cake and clotted cream.


  1. Cathy, you are the fanciest person I know, and I can't wait to attend another tea! Any thoughts on a fall/winter read? I'd love to pick something seasonal. Wouldn't a sparkly winter tea be lovely?

    Also, if anyone else has read "Wolf Hall," please help us figure out why that title was chosen!

  2. Page 468: "The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man." Man preys on man, no one is safe. In the court, there was a lot of paranoia. Examples are brought up several times most vividly in the description of the routine Henry VIII goes through before going to bed - looking under the covers and bed for knives or other weapons. Also having a taster for his meals. There is a real level of distrust among the court.

    But like we said, this doesn't have much to do with the Seymours house: Wolf Hall. I think it is like a premonition of what is to come? Because that is where they are headed at the end of the novel: "...what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours... Wolf Hall."