Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
One might be forgiven for wondering whether the world really needed another work of historical fiction on the subject of Henry VIII and any of his wives. At a certain point, one has had enough of the Boleyn sisters. Mantel, however, approaches the subject from a less romantic, but more interesting, point of view, that of Thomas Cromwell, secretary to Cardinal Wolsey and advisor to the king. Wolf Hall, with the exception of a brief chapter relating to Cromwell's youth, covers the years of Henry's struggle to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and most of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. It is quite a sympathetic portrait of a man who is oft-maligned, but whose administrative genius and reformist accomplishments cannot be doubted. Those whose knowledge of Cromwell and Thomas More is confined to A Man for All Seasons may be surprised to find quite a different view of the two here. This period of English history was one of great change. It was a period of reformation, both religious and political, and Cromwell was at the center of events. As he delicately weaves his way along the path to power, evading dangers at every turn, Mantel's Cromwell also reveals himself to be a generous man, a patron of the arts (particularly Hans Holbein), a financial whiz, a clever and detail-oriented politician, but one who always has his country's interests at heart, as well as his own. At bottom, he loves England and he serves his king.
According to my Encyclopedia Britannica, "[i]f he had a private life, nothing is known of it." That isn't quite true. We know, for instance, whom he married, and that his wife and two daughters died, apparently of the "sweating sickness", within a short time of each other, and that he had a son, who married Jane Seymour's sister. But that's the bare bones. Nevertheless, Mantel has imagined for Cromwell a very rich private life indeed, and she manages to make it ring true to what we do know of his history.
Mantel writes beautifully, for the most part. Her dialogue is natural, and she has a fine eye for description ("gentlemen . . . wearing their fallen-fruit silks of mulberry, gold and plum"). My one quibble is that she generally uses "he" in place of "Cromwell", so that it is often difficult to know to whom she is referring, particularly when she is narrating conversations among multiple speakers. However, once one gets used to this quirk, all is well.
Suggested further reading:
Letters of Henry Viii, 1526-29: Extracts from the Calendar of State Papers of Henry Viii
The Lisle Letters: An Abridgement (The Lisles are several times referred to in Mantel's novel. I won't suggest you read all six volumes!)