This is a good time to write about Wolf Hall, because I was thrilled to learn that Hilary Mantel’s sequel to it has just come out. My copy is arriving soon. Mantel is always an interesting writer whose work does not occupy any one genre, although her last few books have been historical fiction. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize and was one the best books I read in 2010.
The novel looks at the political and religious machinations of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from low origins to become Henry’s chief minister. Although Cromwell has traditionally been viewed as Henry’s “heavy,” recent historians have looked at his career more kindly, showing that his work as chief minister brought England into more modern statehood and that his changes created more order for government functions that were less controlled by the whims of nobility.
Mantel depicts Cromwell as a loyal man who cares for his dependents and works to reform England. He builds up a great household as he moves from the position of secretary to Cardinal Wolsey to work for the king. Later, after the Cardinal’s downfall, he slowly, almost imperceptibly, works to bring down those who furthered their own interests by destroying the Cardinal, including the rapacious Boleyns.
Cromwell is loving to his family and friends, completely faithful to the Cardinal and then to Henry, intelligent, able in many spheres of work, and decent. Mantel paints a charming pictures of his home life. In contrast, she turns the tables on Thomas More, venerated for centuries, showing him as a sadistic torturer of Protestants who is in love with his own martyrdom.
Cromwell meets Jane Seymour when she is a young, lonely lady’s maid to the queen, teased and neglected by the rest of the court, and feels pity for her. Later, after he is long widowed, he falls in love with her. The title of the book is the name of her ancestral home, Wolf Hall.
Mantel’s approach is understated, leaving the reader sometimes to connect the ideas. The details in this novel seem completely authentic, and Mantel handles the period brilliantly. She somehow manages to generate tension and suspense even about things we know all about, like what will happen to Anne Boleyn.