Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel. Published in 2009.

Thomas Cromwell, one of the closest advisers of King Henry VIII, was not well liked by his peers, at least the powerful ones, those whose assessment has been passed down through history. He was unprincipled, we are told: grasping, devious, presumptuously ambitious; a bad man who got what was coming to him when Henry blamed him for the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves and had him beheaded.

But why do we so readily accept the dubious views of Cromwell’s enemies? Novelist Hilary Mantel, drawing on the work of a number of scholars as well as contemporary sources, persuasively recasts the historical figure, her protagonist in Wolf Hall. Her Cromwell lacks not principles but zealotry—all too rare in an age wracked by religious wars. He is indeed ambitious but admirably so, rising from exceedingly humble beginnings to the king’s right hand by virtue of his broad education, financial acumen, and sound judgment. The nobles of the time might sneer at his roots, but why should we? Cromwell is the prototypical self-made man.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still recognizably Cromwell, but seen through new eyes. His alleged vices become virtues; a peek into his family life and background makes him less of a cipher; and in contrast to others of his time—most notably Thomas More—he is a man ahead of it. It’s a fascinating portrait.

After a brief glimpse at Cromwell’s childhood, Wolf Hall begins in earnest when Cromwell is employed by Cardinal Wolsey and continues up to the execution of More. Cromwell’s career continued past that, through eight highly eventful years, so it’s startling that Mantel takes up some six-hundred-plus pages and still doesn’t make it through to the end of the man’s life. The novel concerns itself solely with Cromwell’s rise, not so much his rocky time at the top and certainly not his fall.

Considering that rehabilitating Cromwell is so central to the book, I find it frustrating that many of Cromwell’s more controversial actions take place after it ends. The dissolution of the monasteries, for example, falls outside the book’s purview; Mantel foreshadows that tumultuous episode of English history, but she attributes the seedy idea of looting relics—strip-mining religious icons of their gems—to Henry, which seems … convenient. Mantel also makes much of Cromwell’s loyalty to Wolsey, even after the cardinal’s fall from grace, but ending her book where she does, she needn’t get into how he managed to extract himself from his connections with the doomed Boleyns. True, Cromwell had a much closer relationship with Wolsey—they’re hardly equivalent—but I would have liked to see how this Cromwell handled the need for overt deception, not just political slipperiness, and Mantel spared him that.

But perhaps I am being unfair. Although Cromwell is unquestionably the book’s central character, the heart of Wolf Hall is the contrast between him and More—the best passages nearly all involve conversations between the two men—so maybe it is appropriate to end with More’s death. Certainly the lead-up to the execution, with Cromwell trying to convince More to avoid martyrdom, is the most riveting part of the book. Cromwell’s motives there are at their most complex; More is simultaneously infuriating and pitiful; and their inability to fully understand each other feels portentous, presaging conflict beyond the sixteenth century.

At its best, the book has that kind of power, steeping itself in historical detail yet resonating far past its setting. Occasionally, though, all the detail becomes overwhelming. Mantel clearly is an author who shuns composite characters and refuses to tweak the historical timeline for narrative simplicity, which is admirable but, in practice, extraordinarily complicated. Cromwell’s family alone is a mind-boggling tangle of extended family, in-laws, foster children, and various strays adopted into the household. It’s sort of a running joke that no one outside the Cromwells’ immediate circle ever seems completely clear on who is related to whom, and how.

And yet all that detail also makes Cromwell’s world feel tangible, acutely present. Mantel is a great one for showing, not telling. Reflecting on her protagonist’s diverse skill set, for example, she writes that he “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house, and fix a jury.” I’ve seen that passage quoted several places, but damn if I too didn’t marvel over it and flag it when I read the book. Hell, as a lover (and abuser) of lists in prose, I practically swooned. It’s an impeccably grounded line and a perfect example of how elegant, not merely informed, Mantel’s writing can be.

It was passages like that one that carried me through the slower parts of the book to Cromwell’s next riveting meeting with Henry, Katherine, Anne, her sister Mary, Wolsey, Norfolk, Suffolk, Chapuys, or—best of all—More. Quietly, audaciously, beautifully, persuasively, Mantel makes her Cromwell such a compelling and admirable figure that the other Cromwell, the greedy snake, fades forgotten into nothingness. The Cromwell that remains is beautifully human, quietly heroic, and even—dare I say it—a man for all seasons but particularly our own.