You’ve probably heard of Wolf Hall. It won the Booker Prize in 2009 and I’ve only just got around to reading it!
Wolf Hall is a historical novel following the fortunes of Thomas Cromwell as he serves first Cardinal Wolsey and later Henry VIII. We see a little of his home life but a great deal of his professional life as he uses his talent for persuasion and his unerring ability to spot opportunities to promote himself to ingratiate himself at court. Before long he is a trusted advisor of the King. It is Cromwell who steers Henry through his divorce with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and into the break with Rome and marriage to Anne Boleyn. The novel ends with the King on a journey which he will break with a night’s stay at Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family. Mantel is apparently at work on a sequel focusing on Cromwell’s later life, beginning, I assume, with Henry’s infatuation with Jane Seymour.
The novel is based on meticulous research but much of it, of necessity as much as for storytelling reasons, is pure fiction. I must confess my knowledge of Cromwell was almost non-existent (for example, I didn’t know that Oliver Cromwell was a descendant of Thomas Cromwell’s nephew) but the book made me want to go away and research the facts. I did so, but not until after I’d finished reading the book! I knew enough to know that Cromwell doesn’t have the best reputation, partly due to his large role in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the character in the novel was rather endearing despite his deviousness, and I didn’t want to ruin that.
The historical detail in the novel is very interesting, such as the effect of the plague, which I hadn’t realised was still a problem in the Tudor era. Another element I enjoyed was Cromwell’s patronage of the painter Hans Holbein, and references to trying to get Holbein a commission to paint the king. This is amusing because, of course, it was Holbein who painted the famous portrait of Henry.
All in all, I very much enjoyed this. It is long, but it is worth it.