A Friend To The Throne:
A review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
About half way through Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, I finally started to become somewhat familiar with a few of its characters, their relationship to each other and to the King of England at the time, Henry VIII. Though typically larger than life, the Tudor king steps aside for Mantel’s real hero of this tome, Thomas Cromwell. The book opens as young Thomas is being beaten miserably by his tyrant father. He soon strikes out on his own, seeking a clerical life. The story mostly skips his formative years and follows him through the early reign of Henry VIII. He, Cromwell soon rises through his connection with mentor Cardinal Wolsey, to gain influence with the king.
Mantel subtly elucidates Cromwell’s crucial role in the events leading up through the English reformation; Henry’s hard fought annulment of his marriage with Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to the reviled Anne Boleyn. She paints him, Cromwell with a sympathetic eye, chronicling his sometimes-heartbreaking life with his extended family at Austin Friars. On the other hand Sir (St) Thomas More, who opposes Tudor’s annulment, refusing to sign an oath to his king, is treated with a bold brush stroke of malevolence (in the audio version he even sounds evil). His end, at the chopping block, seems to come with some relish from the author
Meanwhile, we are treated to behind the scene views of historical notables such as: a very young Jane Seymour, from whose family estate this book borrows its title; Mary Boleyn, the other Boleyn girl, who is portrayed as a strong yet melancholy figure; Mary Tudor, vilified as a dwarf princess, disinherited by her father; and German painter Hans Holbein, responsible for many of the famous portraits of the era.
By the end of the novel, I was truly impressed with Hilary Mantel’s breadth of historic knowledge and completely engrossed in the story as presented from a fresh point of view. It may take some persuading, but this will stand as one of the better historical novels of our day.