26 Jul 2010

"Wolf Hall" - Redeeming Thomas Cromwell

Last year there was a lot of fuss surrounding "Wolf Hall" and it got some really great press. I was not convinced though as I thought it sounded a bit dull. So I started out getting to "know" Hilary Mantel, the author, by reading one of her other books "Beyond Black". I really enjoyed that book so I thought I would give "Wolf Hall" a go and see if I liked that as well.

Thomas Cromwell, the main character in Hilary Mantel's novel "Wolfh Hall" has been often been treated as a villain in historical fiction. Little is know about his personal history and so no real biographies have been written about him. This, however, has not stopped Hilary Mantel from writing an astonishingly good novel with Thomas Cromwell as her main character. A likeable main character. Her prose is great, I like the language, the way her characters come to life.

Thomas Cromwell was a key figure at the court of Henry VIII and he lived an incredible life, rising from the lower social classes to becoming one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. He first worked for cardinal Wolsey and then went on to serve Henry VIII as a personal advisor.

His father was a blacksmith - and he managed to become the confidante of a king. Today that may be a bit of a story, in those days it was unthinkable. Thomas Cromwell was feared in his own time and he's reputation has been less than rosy. Mantel has made him both a professional diplomat and a likeable, warm man.
Before reading "Wolf Hall" I had already read "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and other books about Tudor England so I knew the background pretty well and this I think was an advantage. Made it easier to put the plot into context.

"Wolf Hall" charts Thomas Cromwell as he rises in society, navigating the difficult waters of the court where lords and ladies fight for power. It is all down to pleasing the king, a king who after years of marriage to Katherine of Aragon still has no male heir and who is now determined to obtain a divorce and marry Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell has to play his cards well to not only further his own career but also to fight for what he considers right. Religious turmoil is breaking out and Cromwell's own opinoins place him dangerously close to breaking a law.
Along the way we read about Cromwell's household, how he suffers when disease hits his family and how he manages to rebuild his life.
The main part of the plot, however, is the story of how Cromwell opposes Thomas More. A conservative Catholic who is highly opposed to translating the Bible to English, something that Cromwell is very much for. Much is on stake in this religious and political game - the penalty for treason is death and these gentlemen are walking close to the edge.

The story of the Tudors and life at the court of Henry VIII has been told often, still Mantel manages to make it an exiciting tale of love and lust, power and politics.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book - especially the picture it paints of Tudor life and times - and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

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