Most people know that Henry VIII had six wives, but their knowledge of history might not go any deeper than that. British author Hilary Mantel dives deep into this era of history in her 2009 Booker-winning novel “Wolf Hall,” which follows Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell on his rise to power from lowly peasant boy to the king’s right-hand man.
We begin with our face in the mud, as Cromwell has been beaten up once more by his abusive father. Flash forward 27 years, and Cromwell is almost unrecognizable. Returned from abroad and stints as a soldier in wars in France and Italy, not always on the right side, he is now secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, one of the most important religious men in England. Together, Wolsey and Cromwell are an almost unbeatable team—both are cunning and resourceful, and Cromwell will go to any lengths to accomplish his master’s orders.
But the Cardinal soon falls out of favor as Henry seeks to divorce his first wife, Katherine, and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. The Cardinal, as a representative of the Catholic church, is no longer a safe man to be associated with, and as the world around him shifts, Cromwell digs his claws deeper into the fabric of England. He spreads his influence, with a word here, a favor there, until he is indispensable to all of England—his counsel goes not least to the king, Anne Boleyn and the Princess Mary.
With Cromwell, Mantel has chosen the perfect subject. His ubiquitous influence makes him the perfect protagonist to truly capture the period, but his vague origins and the scant information on his personal life leave Mantel plenty of room to make the character her own. While the historical story is interesting and compelling, it is sometimes Mantel’s embellishments that are the most enjoyable, particularly her depictions of Cromwell’s interactions with his family or with fellow statesmen. It is certainly her embellishments that make Cromwell human.
“Wolf Hall” is historical fiction at its best. Mantel’s devotion to the history is apparent, and her story is both completely engaging and historically accurate. Her words do not alter or cut; they simply flesh out what is already there, bringing both the period and the characters to life. Thomas Cromwell seems absolutely real, almost as somebody you could meet on the street today. Mantel takes the image of a hard man, a man who played one of the biggest roles in reforming the English church, and shows his weaknesses, his worries, his love for his daughters and sons. But history is not always happy, and she does not shy away from depicting the more difficult parts, either.
With “Wolf Hall,” Mantel won her first Booker, and with its sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” she won her second, the first woman ever to do so. It’s easy to see why—her prose is rich, compelling and unique, deeply personal and resonant storytelling. The third book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, “The Mirror and the Light,” is set to be released in 2015, and is without a doubt a literary event not to be missed.