I was thrilled to get my hands on the 2009 Booker Prize winner within just a few weeks of its US release. The first ten pages included a detailed cast of characters and a Tudor family tree, a sure sign I was diving into a rich, detailed saga. I hunkered down and was hooked from the first line, uttered by Walter Cromwell to his young son Thomas: "So now get up." From this point -- lying dazed and bloody on the pavement -- Thomas Cromwell rises to become one of King Henry VIII's most trusted advisers. The opening scene inspired him to leave his alcoholic, abusive father and go abroad, even though he was only about 15 years old. Over several years Cromwell became an astute accountant and lawyer, and the trusted adviser of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who held the post of Lord Chancellor in Henry VIII's early court. When Wolsey fell out of favor with the King, Cromwell was savvy enough to stay out of the fray and position himself for greatness. Thomas More then became Lord Chancellor and campaigned against English Bible translations, most notably those by William Tyndale. Cromwell, as the King's chief minister, engineered the political hocus-pocus which allowed Henry to divorce his first wife Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn. This could only be done by establishing Henry's independence from the Catholic Church. More refused to accept this, and was executed.
But Wolf Hall is more than just a tale of political intrigue. Mantel takes the reader deep inside Cromwell's mind and heart. Far from being an unfeeling politician, Thomas Cromwell was a most human protagonist. He rose well above his lowly birth, and was not just literate but multi-lingual. He moved with ease among dukes and royalty, but never forgot his origins. And while he was a savvy negotiator, he also showed compassion, especially to those like More who would lose their lives as part of the English Reformation. Cromwell was also intensely devoted to his family, providing for nieces and nephews as well as his own children. As his wealth and influence grew, he was able to broker advantageous marriages for his family that continued to move them up in society. Almost single-handedly, he changed the course of history.
The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase ... (p.499)
The novel ends in 1535 on a high note: Henry VIII was still married to Anne, and Cromwell was at the peak of his career. And yet, anyone with even a passing knowledge of Tudor history knows of Henry's mercurial behavior. Both Anne and Cromwell would eventually fall out of favor. But that's a story for another novel, one that Mantel has hinted she intends to write. I can't wait. ( )