Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, is subject of brilliant, original 'Wolf Hall'
After Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" won the Man Booker Prize, the book shot up best-seller lists in Britain and the United States.
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The monarch is the focus of history, but somebody has to make the show run behind the pageantry. For Henry VIII, it was Thomas Cromwell, for a time, at least. Henry had his own take on term limits -- an ax -- and in time many of his advisers lost their heads on the chopping block.
While Cromwell (a very distant relation to Oliver Cromwell, who was keen on the ax as well) managed the king's monumental project of taking the church away from Rome efficiently and loyally, he eventually rankled the irritable Henry (all those wives!) and was executed.
Most Americans can be forgiven for confusing the Cromwells, but the English know the difference. Thomas is usually portrayed as a cunning, ruthless villain who smashed the monasteries while persecuting the real or imagined enemies of the king and of his heretical takeover of the Catholic church in England.
All of this happened in the 16th century, when England was riven with religious upheaval and governed by a king desperate for a male heir. Married to the older Catherine of Aragon, a Spaniard and widow of his brother, Henry was unsuccessful in siring a son, only a daughter, Mary, who caused much mischief later. Guided by Cromwell, the king dumped Catherine for the younger and presumably more fertile Anne Boleyn.
While this history sounds better suited for horse-breeding operations, lovers of royalty revel in it. It is the stuff of romance and mythology, and frequently the human dimension takes a backseat to the intrigue.
Hilary Mantel has brilliantly restored that dimension to history in this highly original novel, a fictional biography of Cromwell that won the Man Booker Prize in September. History aside, "Wolf Hall" breathes life into a world of 500 years ago through Mantel's fully realized central character and the people who surround him. Much of the novel is about day-to-day living in the 16th century -- the stocking of kitchens, making of clothes and, most vividly, the lives of families.
As a young boy, Cromwell fled his brutal lower-class father and made his way to Europe, where his intelligence flowered. Back in England as a merchant-lawyer, he raised his family with love and attention, only to see his beloved wife and two daughters die in a plague. Mantel's description of how Cromwell made angel wings for one of those daughters is heartbreaking and lovely at the same time.
Cromwell also embraces the virtue of honest loyalty, first as an aide to Cardinal Wolsey, then to King Henry and his feckless mistress and later queen.
Through its hero, "Wolf Hall" captures the sense of a world on the brink of modernity when international trade, rather than war, made the difference.
"The world is run from Antwerp, Florence, from places he never imagined; from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up by the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and the click of the mechanism of the gun, but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and the shot."
The novel ends with Cromwell at his peak in 1535 as he senses that the mercurial king is bored with his new queen, mother of yet another daughter, Elizabeth, and needs a new diversion. Wolf Hall is the estate of the Seymours, source of Henry's third wife and now Cromwell's focus.
Despite its overall brilliance, Mantel's novel can confuse and occasionally lose its readers among the many characters and their own stories. Mantel does list many of them for our reference, and it's quite helpful.
If you give yourself over to her prose, you can find yourself in Cromwell's world in the profound way only fiction can deliver.
First Published November 8, 2009 12:00 am