So, I’ve gone over to the dark side. I’ve checked out The Tudors, the steamy Showtime series with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII and wives draped all over the promos in extremely unlikely lowcut gowns. And I’m going to be fast-forwarding past Henry and the wives to look for the bits with Thomas Cromwell. Thomas Cromwell. This guy:
Even his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, affectionately refers to him as “rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes.”
Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel is responsible for my unlikely crush on a bulldog-faced Tudor bureaucrat. Wolf Hall follows the events of 1527-1535, when King Henry is harrying lawyers, churchmen, ambassadors, fellow rulers, and the Pope for an annulment of his first marriage and a do-over with Anne Boleyn. Cromwell is our viewpoint character. He comes out of nowhere, a blacksmith’s son with a dodgy past that he rarely talks about, and he builds a reputation as a man who gets things done until he’s King Henry’s right-hand man. And the things that Henry wants done involve moving church and state.
There’s a certain satisfaction in reading about talented people going competently about their jobs, and Cromwell is an admirable multitasker who “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury,” while safeguarding the futures of his extended household of foundlings and foster children. I can’t speak to the historical veracity of Mantel’s portrayal, except to note that like Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, the novel sympathetically rehabilitates a figure frequently depicted as a villain. The character will appeal to readers who enjoyed Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, about another low-born youth who schemes his way to power.
Prepare to spend some time with this book. It’s long, detailed, subtle, and sometimes has the pacing of a chess game. The prose is clean, the language unadorned, the conversations lifelike and convivial (the law may have changed since the 1500s, but lawyer jokes have not).
All of the characters are well-drawn, from the rival Boleyn siblings to the enigmatic martyr Thomas More. If you like to put faces with names, court painter Hans Holbein sketched or painted many of them. Between his paintings and Mantel’s words, a panorama of long-dead people briefly come to life again.
Check the WRL catalog for Wolf Hall.
Check out the Holbein paintings, too.
P.S. I naively thought Wolf Hall would take us through the life of Thomas Cromwell, or at least to the death of Anne Boleyn, but no! We won’t get Cromwell’s full story until a second volume, The Mirror and the Light, is published some time next year.