Reviewed by Paul Carrier for THE WALRUS SAID
Historical fiction takes many forms, with a corresponding range in quality. Sometimes its primary appeal is its subject, rather than the writing. Or it may, as in the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, rise to the level of literature.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, falls into the latter category, which comes as no surprise. Mantel won Britain's Man Booker Prize in 2009.
The novel explores part of the tumultuous reign of England’s King Henry VIII, but the protagonist is not the lusty, heir-obsessed Henry, the zealously Catholic Thomas More, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, or any of Henry’s other wives.
Rather, the central character is Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble origins to become Henry’s right-hand man, before being executed on trumped up treason and heresy charges in 1540. (History’s more celebrated Cromwell - Oliver - who briefly overthrew the British monarchy in the 17th century, was descended from Thomas Cromwell’s sister Catherine.)
The Wikipedia entry on Thomas Cromwell says he has been portrayed in at least 14 movies and television series. Perhaps the most notable was Leo McKern's in the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons. If we have any impression of Cromwell, it generally is unflattering, thanks to characterizations of him as cunning, ruthless and blindly ambitious.
Mantel’s Cromwell is all of that, but much more: smooth-talking, observant, analytical, tireless, even charming, when it suits his purposes. We become privy to his troubled youth, his subsequent wanderlust, his photographic memory, his role as a devoted husband and father and the growth of his anti-Catholic views, as he comes to question the teachings and practices of the church even before Henry breaks with Rome in his zeal to marry Boleyn.
“His speech is low and rapid,” Mantel tells us, “his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.”
When Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king’s previous go-to guy and Cromwell’s patron in the early going, speculates that Cromwell may later find himself working for the king, Wolsey good-naturedly tells Cromwell that Henry “will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom.”
Mantel’s writing is lyrical and evocative. The chill in a cavernous room housing Henry's daughter, the princess Mary, is "like a ghost's ambassador." While hunting in the forest, a courtier warns Cromwell, “you may find yourself lost, without companions. You may come to a river which is not on a map. You may lose sight of your quarry, and forget why you are there. You may meet a dwarf, or the living Christ, or an old enemy of yours; or a new enemy, one you do not know until you see his face appear between the rustling leaves, and see the glint of his dagger.”
The key players in Henry’s circle all come to life in Wolf Hall. Thomas More, the scholar-statesman, oversees the torture of heretics and entertains dinner guests at his home in Latin, even though his wife Alice does not know the language. Wolsey is cosmopolitan and conniving, but devoted to his king. When Cromwell gives the self-absorbed and scheming Boleyn a gift of silver forks shortly before she becomes queen, “he hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people.” Henry emerges as autocratic and demanding, yet vulnerable and (at times) merciful as well.
So too, Mantel offers a frighteningly compelling look at a world in which religious orthodoxy is paramount. Catholics and Protestants wage feverish, life-or-death battles over conflicting beliefs that send heretics to the stake or the ax. Tolerance and diversity are inconceivable.
Various reviewers have described Wolf Hall as “brilliant,” “startling” and “masterful.” Each adjective is accurate. None is an exaggeration. This is a dazzlingly original novel, and although it is a work of fiction, it presents a believable portrait of a man of many parts who has been ill-treated by history.