What King Henry wants King Henry is going to get. It’s his world, and everyone else is just living in it…or rather, is scraping and scrapping to get ahead in it. With the future of the kingdom at stake and England’s master without a male child, Henry VIII decides he must marry Anne Boleyn in order to produce an heir. The only problem is that he’s been married to Katherine of Spain for some 20 odd years…and the Church doesn’t really grant divorces. Who could untie this Gordian knot?
Enter Thomas Cromwell, who is neither a hero, nor a villain, but something of an everyman, a semi-tragic character who we see more through the eyes around him than through his own. As the story opens, he lies in the mud, an ignorant and dirty child, beaten by his own drunk father. Then he is running, escaping across the sea to find a fortune, only to reappear as the counselor to the infamous Cardinal Wolsey. As his master falls, he manages to become indispensable…to nearly everyone, including the king, and it is his ability to make things happen, to accomplish the ends of the king, that brings him up from street urchin to the fixer and right-hand man of the powerful at a time when the reformation has begun and heresy and apostasy is ripping at the fabric of the Roman church.
It’s a fascinating and complex period in English history when the plague is an annual reoccurrence and the torture and execution of the heretical is not unexpected. With Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel breathes a life into the time that both reveals and obscures the man Thomas Cromwell, as well as the cast that he moves amidst: Wolsey, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Katherine, and more.
And yet, Wolf Hall is not a book that welcomes the reader with open arms. Rather, the path through its pages is occasionally confusing, with a style the requires attention. Thomas Cromwell is rarely referred to directly, almost always appearing as “he” in Mantel’s formulation. I could never lazily read or skim or gloss over a page without missing a critical, and often obscurely placed, detail. Indeed, Mantel is the master of the off-handedly placed detail that only later becomes critical, and it makes reading Wolf Hall a fulfilling exercise for the mind.
One interesting insight for me was the impact of perspective. One of my favorite plays is A Man for All Seasons, which is the story of Thomas More, who also plays a leading role in Wolf Hall, ostensibly as the erstwhile antagonist to Cromwell in his efforts to obtain the King’s desire for an annulment. Where A Man for All Seasons unequivocally lionizes More, Wolf Hall paints a more nuanced picture of the man, and never is it clear whether one side or the other is right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, they are people, acting as people do, draping their actions in the color of morality or legal justifications.
As historical fiction, I’m not sure to whom to recommend the book. At times, I nearly left off reading, but as I gave more attention and focus, Wolf Hall gripped me harder and become compelling. In short, it’s not an easy read, but it is a worthy one, and I will read its sequels in due course.
Wolf Hall received the Man Booker prize, as well as a bevy of other awards. I believe it was also developed into a miniseries for Showtime.