Sometime around 1526, King Henry VIII of England fell in love with a young woman named Anne Boleyn. What followed is one of the world’s most-told stories: Henry’s attempt to get his marriage annulled, which resulted in the English church’s break with the Vatican; Henry’s marriage to Anne and the birth of their daughter; the disastrous failure of the marriage; Anne’s execution; and the long and ugly spectacle of the King’s subsequent marriages - six in all.
Hundreds of novels, movies, television shows and mini-series have been inspired by this fast-changing, tumultuous period of English history, to say nothing of the mountains of historical scholarship.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is different from the rest. The 2009 novel tells the story of Henry and Anne from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the most powerful figures at Henry’s court. Cromwell was a common-born but uncommonly gifted political fixer, a man who got things done. In Mantel’s words,
He is at home in a courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
Cromwell is often thought of as a ruthless and merciless political climber, but Mantel breaks with tradition to portray him as a man who is warm and generous to his family and friends. Next to him, the brilliant Sir Thomas More (usually portrayed very positively, as in the movie A Man For All Seasons) seems chilly and manipulative.
More and Cromwell vie for Henry’s favor: More wants to steer the king towards righteous behavior, while Cromwell attempts to gain influence by granting the king’s wishes. Those of us who are familiar with this period of history know that events won’t go exactly as either More or Cromwell plan. Knowing just how badly things turn out for both of them (not to mention Anne Boleyn) adds a strong element of suspense to this rich, immersive experience.
Wolf Hall won a fistful of awards. In fact, Mantel is the first woman ever to have won the Man Booker Prize twice: once for Wolf Hall, and once for its sequel, Bring up the Bodies.
I’ve now experienced Wolf Hall two ways: I’ve read it, and I’ve listened to the extraordinarily good audio version narrated by the Simon Slater. If you like historical novels, give Wolf Hall a try; and if you like audiobooks, please do not miss this one.