Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Mantel has called Wolf Hall a response to Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. The ruthless character in that play is tempered in Mantel’s fictionalized account of the life of Thomas Cromwell. Her Cromwell is still opportunistic and willing to overlook some of his personal beliefs in order to please King Henry VIII thereby gaining power for himself.
Mantel’s Cromwell seems to be capable of anything. When he leaves his abusive father behind, he works tirelessly in order to re-make himself. Penniless, he joined the French Army and then traveled throughout Europe. Wherever he went, he learned the language and developed a wide-ranging network. It seems he had a way with people and while he had many friends, it seems he had quite a few enemies as well. Nobles in particular, resented Cromwell’s rise to power and his accumulation of wealth. Perhaps it was his willingness to do whatever needed to be done no matter if it challenged tradition or law. He changed the law if it was an obstacle.
While he may have been unrelenting, he was nothing if he wasn’t loyal. He stood by Cardinal Woolsey, when it wasn’t in his best interest to do so and it still worked in his favor. Cromwell’s rise to power may have been gradual, but his attempts to help Henry VIII marry Anne Boleyn are what really solidified his role as Henry’s chief advisor. Neither the King nor his future queen are portrayed favorably. Anne is even more ambitious than Cromwell. Henry’s obsession with Anne and producing an heir seem absurd at times.
It’s true that this book is not for the reader who is looking for a fast-paced thriller, but it was a wonderful portrait of an intriguing character. I listened to the audio version available on Overdrive and I didn’t find it as tough going as I might have if I had tried to read it. It was sometimes difficult to keep track of the large cast of characters, but definitely worth the effort. Thomas Cromwell may have had a few flaws, but I found his character compelling. In comparison to the members of Henry’s Court, Cromwell was refreshing. He has that self-made man appeal and his worldliness was not what I would have expected.
The thing that I liked about him the most, was that he was always willing to take people in. Whether it was someone’s child who wouldn’t have a chance in his present circumstances, or a woman whose husband ran off on her, there always seemed to be a place in Austin Friars (Cromwell’s home) for them. And when he took someone in, he educated them, employed them and gave them the best opportunities. As Mantel says in an article, “There was a touch of the mafia boss about him: once you were part of the Austin Friars family, you would be protected, made useful and often made rich.” I think Mantel achieved her goal of showing another side of Thomas Cromwell. I for one was taken in by him. I was disappointed when the novel ended, because it seemed like there was more to tell. Luckily, Mantel is working on the sequel.