Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. It’s the story of a man who grew up in Putney, the son of a blacksmith. A man who ran away from a violent home to be a soldier in Europe, then came home to work in the household of Cardinal Wolsey, the most influential man in the kingdom & the King’s right hand. Cromwell is a family man who treats his servants & clerks as part of his family. He takes in orphaned nieces & nephews, arranges their marriages & places them with important men. After Wolsey’s disgrace, he manages to demonstrate his loyalty to his old master while also taking his place with the King. The facts of Cromwell’s story are well-known. What Hilary Mantel has done is to bring the period & the people to life. She’s written a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the sixteenth century. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. I read hundreds of historical novels when I was a teenager & the best of them led me to reading non-fiction about my favourite historical periods. I was interested in Wolf Hall because the Tudor period is one of my favourites. I’ve read a lot about Henry, his wives, Elizabeth, the Queen of Scots. I wasn’t interested in reading a conventional novel that took me through the old familiar story. Wolf Hall is different.
Mantel doesn’t write great set pieces, describing the nobleman’s house or the King’s palace, cramming in every bit of research to make you aware that you’re in a different period. She doesn’t try to copy 16th century speech or describe what everyone’s wearing. There’s a massive cast of characters & it takes concentration to keep them all straight. Cromwell is referred to as “he” much of the time. The reader is often listening to his thoughts as much as hearing him speak. It’s an intimate relationship between reader & character. I thought I knew quite a bit about Cromwell but it was mostly through other people’s stories. Anne Boleyn or Anne of Cleves, Thomas More or Henry. Holbein’s portrait was also in my mind as I read. My idea of Cromwell was not one I felt much sympathy for, but I enjoyed meeting this Cromwell very much. He’s a practical man, alive to the possibilities of business, the giving & receiving of favours. A shrewd man who has learnt the hard way how to get ahead. A man with a thick skin, impervious to the insults of nobles & churchmen who snigger at his origins.
Mantel’s portraits of other characters were also fascinating & sometimes unexpected. The picture she draws of Thomas More is not the gentle saint that readers of Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons will be familiar with, but it’s one I recognize from biographies of More that I’ve read. Wolsey is a humorous, kind man here rather than the rapacious, greedy churchman. Henry was the biggest surprise. Mantel’s Henry is fearful. Frightened of poison, of looking foolish to his brother monarchs, of his wife’s bad temper. He relied on Wolsey’s experience as a young king & is just as dependant on Cromwell for reassurance in his middle age.
Wolf Hall ends in 1535. Henry has divorced Katherine of Aragon, married Anne Boleyn, who has given birth to a princess & just miscarried a second child. More & Fisher have been executed. Cromwell is planning a progress for the King & the narrative leaves off as he decides that they will stay at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymours, as part of the journey. Anyone who knows Tudor history realises what a critical time this is for all the characters in the novel. The last five years of Cromwell’s life are full of as much intrigue as all the years covered in this novel. I believe Hilary Mantel is working on a sequel. I can’t wait to read it.