Before ‘Wolf Hall’ there was: ‘The Man on a Donkey’ by H F M Prescott


I’m a sucker for a good long book when it comes to providing proper escapism.  If the action in the story all takes place in a fashionable historical period, things are even more promising.  ‘The Man on a Donkey’ is presented as a chronicle of events in England between 1509 and 1537.  As fans of Hillary Mantel and Tudor history will know, this covers Henry VIII’s first marriages, the beginning of the Church of England and the dissolution of the English Monasteries and Nunneries.

At over 700 pages, Prescott’s 1952 novel sets out to do justice to the complexities of this time period.  The story follows five main characters, a prioress, a lord, a gentlewoman, a squire and a priest.  All of them will have their lives shattered by the Reformation, but their stories are nonetheless unexpected and surprising, convincingly debunking any stereotypical expectations you might have about Tudor behaviour or beliefs.

My favourite character is probably the Prioress, Christabel Cowper.  A unsentimental business woman, we trace her life and success from first entering the Marrick Priory as a child to her seemingly inevitable rise up the hierarchy.  In the twenty-first century she would have been the CEO of an international business; in this book she utterly dominates her sphere and is an argument both for and against the holy orders in pre-Reformation England.  The argument for, is the power it gave at least a few women – legal power far in excess of any wife in the realm.  As for the arguments against, well Chistabel is as secular a prioress as you could even imagine, far more concerned with increasing her Priory’s wealth than ever sharing any of it with the poor.  Countering this woman within the Catholic establishment is the priest’s narrative.  Gilbert Dawe is poor and, at heart, a revolutionary believer in the reformed church.  He is also utterly mean-spirited, abusive towards his family (the woman who bore him a child and the poor child himself) and filled with bitter hatred toward anyone with wealth or power.  The other central characters are equally well-drawn, complex and unexpected; I suspect each reader or reading will uncover a new personal favourite.

On a deeper level however, this epic is not really about these fictional or fictionalised characters at all, but about the world in which they live.  This is an England ruled by a tyrant, in which the whims of those in power can destroy the lives of thousands.  It is also a traumatised nation; the civil War of the Roses is within living memory for the older generation.  Prescott makes a convincing case that this fear of renewed bloody conflict is what cows Henry’s opponents into supporting his increasingly destabilising policies.  In today’s frightening political climate, ‘The Man on a Donkey’ is an unexpectedly timely reflection on power and fear.

In another way, this is also a book about faith.  Prescott explores what it means for a religion which preaches peace to be at the heart of conflict.  How can a single faith account for such different public faces as Christabel Cowper and Gilber Dawe?  Possibly more significantly, how could Christianity in its essence have survived the schisms and violence of the Reformation?  Her solution is spiritual, heart-felt and, whether or not you believe in her conclusion, extremely moving.  ‘The Man on a Donkey’ delivers everything you could want from a doorstop of historical escapism and it is also the most sincere book of religious struggle I have read since Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead.’  Read it for the period, for the characters, for the politics or for the theology.  Or read it because it has a beautiful cover and will keep you happy over hundreds of pages; either way, you won’t regret it.

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9 Responses to Before ‘Wolf Hall’ there was: ‘The Man on a Donkey’ by H F M Prescott

  1. I have a copy and, though I daren’t pick it up until I’m done with ‘War and Peace; I’m glad you were so taken with this book.

  2. I’ve never heard of this author. Thank you Shoshi

  3. BookerTalk says:

    What a clever way to tackle what can often seem a very complicated period for people who are not familiar with the dynastic squabbles, it brings it more to the personal level

    • It’s great – and though the big names (Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn etc) do appear, it’s refreshing to have the focus on those who are affected by – rather than those who make – policy!

  4. Izzy says:

    I did some research on Amazon because I’d never heard of Prescott. I learnt that he is an Oxford historian who doesn’t write like an academic (that can be a good thing or a very bad thing), and that his book was indeed praised by Hilary Mantel herself. I enjoyed your review but I wasn’t sure I’d want to read this because you don’t say anything about the author’s style…

  5. Izzy says:

    Sorry, *she* is a historian…I read your review too quickly the time around !

    • Sorry for not mentioning the style! (I was worried the review was getting too long).
      As your research shows, Prescott’s prose is really readable and definitely works as literature rather than academic history. The author’s knowledge is put to excellent use when it comes to period detail and vocabulary (I’ve learned a lovely smattering of antiquated vocabulary), but it’s not laboured, either in the style or in the reading. I do really recommend it and found the hundreds of pages a surprisingly quick read.

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