Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. New York: Picador, 2010.
Summary: Book One of a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, a key figure in the English Reformation, covering the rise of Cromwell to power under Henry VIII, up until 1535.
Thomas Cromwell is one of the most interesting figures of the English Reformation. He was one of those “indispensable men” one often finds close to great leaders, shrewd and capable in solving the problems facing the great leader, often more loyal to those they serve than the one they serve is to them. Charming and ruthless and skilled in both law and finance, Cromwell accrued more and more power to himself. He cut through the Gordian knots of Henry VIII’s marriages and engineered the formation of the Church of England, cutting ties with Rome.
This work of historical fiction, a 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, is the first of a trilogy, narrating the rise of Cromwell from the boy who survives violent abuse by his blacksmith father Walter to spend his early adult years fighting with the French and learning finance with the Italians, and working in the mercantile centers of Europe, acquiring a broad network of contacts. He returns to London, establishes himself as a lawyer accomplished in commercial negotiations, and eventually secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to the King and charged with securing an annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine. Wolsey fails, leading to his downfall and charges of treason.
Cromwell remains loyal to Wolsey until his death, a loyalty noted in royal circles. While he suffers the loss of wife and both daughters to illness–loss that haunts him throughout this book–he gains the confidence of the king and Anne Boleyn, who the king hopes to marry and on whom are the king’s hopes of a male heir. Eventually, under Cromwell, Parliament passes the Act of Succession under which clergy swore their ultimate submission to the king, not to Rome. For this Bishop Fisher and Thomas More, refusing to submit, go to their deaths.
Mantel tells this story, with all its in and outs and political maneuverings from Cromwell’s perspective. We read his thoughts, his perspective, his voice as he solves problems, faces loss, stewards the fortunes of the king, his sons, his wards. Where other accounts may portray a Machiavellian against the principled likes of More, this portrays a shrewd pragmatist, fiercely loyal to king and family, not without religious sensibilities but likewise very much grounded in the practical realities and use of power for the king’s ends. Whether she gets Cromwell right or not, Mantel explores what it is like to be Thomas Cromwell–to rise from a common birth, to advance by his shrewdness in managing affairs of state and of the heart, and through his competence to gain greater and greater power.
We have hints that it will not always be this way–Wolsey’s fall warning that Henry brooked no failure, but that is yet in the future. When the book ends he is Principal Secretary and Master of the Rolls to the king. The religious opposition in the form of Fisher and More are dead. He has also been appointed Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General, and is preparing to visit the monasteries and religious houses either to liquidate them or more effectively tax them.
A couple of other comments. A key to enjoying this book is to figure out when Cromwell is speaking in dialogues and understanding that the narrative is through his eyes. That is not always easy to discern in the text, as many readers have noted. The other is the tantalizing character of the title. Wolf Hall is the family seat of the Seymour family, rivals of the Boleyns, influential nobility whose daughter Jane served in the court of Anne and eventually succeeded her (after the time of Book One of the trilogy) as the wife of Henry VIII. Cromwell’s son Gregory marries Jane’s sister and Cromwell notes the hovering presence of Jane in Anne’s household. Wolf Hall is a presence, a harbinger of things to come.
Should you read Wolf Hall? If you are willing to work to track the narration and keep track of the many characters, including the many Thomases, you will be rewarded with a rich psychological study of Cromwell and what it is like to wield power in the ever-dangerous presence of greater power. This is not mind candy for casual reading but rich fare for the attentive reader.