A bold historical novel, Wolf Hall is one of those books that appears to get better not only from its rereading (which I have done three times) but also from simply thinking about it. And it’s all to do with Thomas Cromwell.
Not that much is written about Henry VIII’s Master of the Roles and personal advisor – and when it is, Cromwell does not come out of it well (in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, for example, he comes across as grasping, uncouth and overbearingly ambitious). Yet, in her fictionalised account of events leading up to the dissolution of Henry’s 20-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the rise of Anne Boleyn, Hilary Mantel inveigles a deep sense of humanity and empathy into the man who, for a short period of time, was the most powerful man in the country aside from the king himself.
And what makes his position the more extraordinary was that Cromwell was a completely self-made man – a mere commoner in the royal household when name and title normally meant everything.
He had powerful enemies at court as a result. But, a lawyer by trade and charged with overseeing Henry’s divorce from Katherine, the fiercely intelligent, opportunist Cromwell recognised the power and responsibility the role gave him. Ever the game player, it was he who was handling the future direction of England. The Pope had rejected all approaches for the annulment of the marriage – the only way forward for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn was a split from the Roman Catholic church. And Cromwell was determined to control every aspect of the schism for the greater good of Henry and England.
In its 650 pages, Wolf Hall covers the period 1530 to 1533. And, in spite of the gravity and importance of events at court, it is essentially the story of Thomas Cromwell – at home at Austin Friars; his political machinations as he deals with the pressures from powerful English catholic families, ambassadors and representatives of France, the Pope and Katherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor; meetings with the king. But, with his humble beginnings, Cromwell is equally at home in the kitchens, planning banquets with his staff, or flirting with Anne Boleyn’s household staff.
It is a magnificent achievement. Wolf Hall is an engrossing read, a rich panoply of larger-than-life personalities full of sharp wit with lots of royal intrigue, betrayals and more than a smattering of blood. It leaves you wanting more – which is fine as it is part of a trilogy, with Bring Up the Bodies its sequel.
But Wolf Hall has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. And, along with Bring Up the Bodies (which won the 2012 Man Booker Prize, making Mantel only the third author, along with Peter Carey and J M Coetzee, to win the award twice), it has been adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a BBC miniseries. The stage production has been presented in both London and New York, with the Broadway version collecting eight Tony nominations, including best play.