If you like the Tudor saga and all those Phillipa Gregory novels, you will savor Wolf Hall. Immediately, you’ll see the difference in quality from Gregory’s historical fiction bordering on pulp romance to Hilary Mantel’s well-researched story with Thomas Cromwell as the focus.
Thomas Cromwell, a commoner, self-made man with up-by-his-bootstraps success, was the ultimate politician – eyes open, ears listening, and ready to tell you what you want to hear – in this case, the most famous audience being Henry VIII. Mantel showcases Cromwell’s shrewdness and intelligence in a time of fools and conniving noblemen, but Cromwell’s humanity – the side we usually only see of politicians when they are involved in ludicrous or humiliating activity – shows a man with common sense and the talent for getting ahead.
If you are wondering if you really need to read yet another novel about the machinations of Henry VIII’s appetite for a new bride every now and then, it’s really Cromwell’s historic influence at the forefront here. This is the Cromwell who engineered the Reformation and the installation of Anne Boleyn as Queen; not Oliver, who later managed to overthrow the monarchy.
The story dates from Thomas Cromwell as a boy, through Cardinal Wolsey, and finally Thomas More. Mantel shows the human side – warts and all – as these men interact and try to one-up each other. But it’s Cromwell, the man, who will keep you reading. Mantel uses his frank asides and private comments to show Cromwell as the one who can see the king has no clothes, but is smart enough not to say so.
Navigating politics is dangerous, and Cromwell wonders at first if he should have made his fortune in law, and avoided all the pitfalls of court. In Mantel’s portrait, it’s not only the power that draws him in, but also the possibility of making a difference – a change. Cromwell’s reputation for getting things done gets him noticed, by promoters as well as enemies. As today, competition is tough, and friends become expendable as he makes his way up the ladder.
Thomas More doesn’t seem as saintly as history later paints him; he does make the right decision for eventual canonization when he favors the church over the king – and opens another niche for Cromwell, whose political savvy keeps him on the right team – through this novel anyway.
This is a long book that cannot be read lightly. Mantel conveniently provides charts of the English line of royalty, and lists of players for each venue; they help, and you will find yourself referring back to them frequently – if only to keep all the Thomases straight.
Cromwell’s world is full of meetings – small and large – within and without the family – with those who can help him in his ambition and with those on the wane. It’s complicated; the drama and intrigue mixed with survival and everyday incidents.
If you slept through European History 101, or if you just can’t keep all those dukes and wives clear, you might want to check on the English Tudor site for Cromwell, Boleyn, More, and Seymour. I did – about halfway through. The story is well-known, so no surprises, but it did give some perspective on the conversations. … http://englishhistory.net/tudor/citizens/cromwell.html
In Wolf Hall, Mantel takes Cromwell as his star is rising and ends her novel with the death of Thomas More. Seems she is working on a sequel that continues with the Seymours. You
remember Jane Seymour? Next wife in line after Anne Boleyn. The title takes its name from the Seymours family estate, known as Wolf Hall, and according to the author, it’s a connecting point to the book’s sequel.
The book gives yet another perspective on that time in English history that continues to fascinate, and humanizes the flat stereotypes usually relegated to the players in the Tudor Rose court, especially Thomas Cromwell.