I’ve indulged in a number of books on Tudor historical fiction including the Philippa Gregory novels – and who didn’t watch The Tudors on Showtime? Wolf Hall, Tudor-inspired historical fiction revolving around the life of Thomas Cromwell and the first in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, was published fairly recently and quickly won a bevy of awards including the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critic Circle Award. Hardcover | Henry Holt & Co. | 2009 | 532pp
Thomas Cromwell was an ambitious man who rose at a meteoric pace for someone of his humble lineage, managing to become Privy Councillor by Henry VIII where he held a number of positions. He was widely considered a malevolent character in the king’s council and has often been one bathed in negative personality distinctions by several authors. But in Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Cromwell is seen as more of a hero.
Wolf Hall begins with a rough upbringing. Mantel imagines a young Cromwell at the hands of a drunken, abusive father. At the urging of his sister, he leaves home as a young boy before his father can kill him. Shown through flashbacks here and there, she then envisions a wild assortment of adventures and opportunities that led him to his career as an adviser to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.
A picture of Cromwell is painted as a good man – ambitious as ever, but generally good. He’s a loving husband, a hands-on father, a wise and cunning intellectual, multilingual, and entirely devoted to the people who support him, especially Wolsey. After Wolsey is arrested for going against the king’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon, but officially for creating a sovereign empire of Catholicism within England, Cromwell expects to be sent to the tower himself. But after a meeting with the king, a new life at court is ensured and Thomas becomes involved with aiding the king’s annulment, his proposed marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the beginning of the protestant reformation.
His vision that combined major players and social agendas within a room caught my attention:
“He looks around the room. That’s where the Lord Chancellor sat. On his left, the hungry merchants. On his right, the new ambassador. There, Humphrey Monmouth, the heretic. There, Antonio Bonvisi. Here, Thomas Cromwell. And there are ghostly places set, for the Duke of Suffolk large and bland, for Norfolk jangling his holy medals, and shouting ‘By the Mass!’ There is a place set for the king, and for the doughty little queen, famished in this penitential season, her belly quaking inside the stout armor of her robes. There is a place set for Lady Anne, glancing around with her restless black eyes, eating nothing, missing nothing, tugging at the pearls around her little neck. There is a place for William Tyndale, and one for the Pope; Clement looks at the candied quinces, too coarsely cut, and his Medici lip curls. And there sits Brother Martin Luther, greasy and fat: glowering at them all, and spitting out his fish bones.”
Cromwell’s negative impression of Anne Boleyn isn’t limited to this paragraph. Cromwell despises her and Mantel makes her out to be every bit of the conniving wench Cromwell hates. Yet, he is bound by the King to help her become Queen of England.
“He goes to see Anne. A thorn between two roses, she is sitting with her cousin Mary Shelton, and her brother’s wife, Jane, Lady Rochford.”
Jane? A “rose”? Perhaps at this point, but we can see where this is going. Cromwell expresses constant ‘digs’ at Anne and in a way it shows Cromwell’s sense of humor. Some insults were directly to her face and I couldn’t help it – I giggled.
Any page you land on in this book is bound to have a quotable quote. I dog-eared thirty or so pages and my highlighter ran dry.
“The multitude,” Cavendish says, “is always desirous of a change. They never see a great man set up but they must pull him down – for the novelty of the thing … But what do they get by change?” Cavendish persists. “One dog sated with meat is replaced by a hungrier dog who bites nearer the bone. Out goes the man grown fat with honor, and in comes a hungry and lean man.”
Wolf Hall is a completely different take on Cromwell, turning a man with a tainted reputation into one with honor and dignity. Although I enjoyed the twist on the characters of Cromwell and Lady Anne, and although I found too many quotes to love, I truly did have a hard time reading this novel. It’s long, complex, and an arduous read. There’s a lot of dialogue, numerous players, and stretches of passages where nothing but back-and-forth bickering prevails. This is not a casual read and my enjoyment was lost on many occasions.
by Hilary Mantel