Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, and no wonder. She weaves together history and the inner life of a self-made man at a pivotal moment in England's history, creating a rich tapestry of the human desires that reordered an era. If you're familiar with Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, a hagiography of Sir Thomas More, this is its verso. More was the brilliant, humble, moral lawyer who as Chancellor chose silence and death rather than defy his king or deny his church, when Henry VIII was casting off his 20-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn, with whom he hoped to produce an heir to his throne. Churchmen, scholars, diplomats and schemers all worked to give Henry what he wanted, while loyalists to the Pope, the French emperor, and Katherine and her parents (Phillip and Isabella of Spain) resisted. Civil war was not out of the question.
Mantel's hero, however, is Thomas Cromwell. In Bolt's play he is a lout whose power stems from blackmail, and whose web reaches far. But in Mantel's intimate characterization, Cromwell, a blacksmith's son, has the instincts of a born politician. Fleeing a violent father, the boy makes himself useful to people in the fabric trade, and living in Europe becomes fluent in many languages. With no illusions about the nobility of man, he applies Machiavellian principles to achieve his aims. He is observant, a good listener, and cultivates a memory system that proves invaluable as he moves into the rarefied worlds of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he serves steadfastly, then Henry, Anne
Boleyn and her court, Katherine, churchmen, even More despite
their differences. Conversations with friends and foes alike are witty, barbed and productive.
Mantel's great achievement is that for the eight years of the story's focus, 1527 - 1535, we live in Cromwell's skin with him. He never fails to note the fabric worn by those around him, we feel deeply the deaths of his wife and daughters to "the summer sweats", a devastating illness in which a person goes to bed in the morning feeling bad, and is dead by sundown. We see the satisfaction he takes in bringing young men into his large household, guiding them and setting them on productive paths. He also takes in strays: the widow and children of his brother; a pregnant young woman whose abusive husband has abandoned her and their two small children ; a French youth with bloodthirsty inclinations. He buys the loyalty of servants in his enemies' households, to keep track of their doings.
He is the King's adviser because while he is soothing in how he imparts bad news, he doesn't hide the facts. Henry trusts him, and we feel he should, because here is a man who is his loyal subject, who will bend his will and use his connections to get him what he wants.
And perhaps because he is immune to Boleyn's charms, he earns her confidence as well. The aristocracy scorn him for his low origins - though he says very little about his childhood, claiming not to know even what year he was born - but they also fear him: he is a shrewd investor while they squander money they assume they have, and it unnerves them to see in high precincts a man who gained power and position without bloodlines.
Cromwell is depicted as a generous man, loving husband and father, always on the lookout for the welfare of those under his protection. More, on the other hand, oversees the torture of those he regards as heretics, belittles his own wife in her presence, and is as parsimonious as Cromwell is open-handed. Between Bolt's story and Mantel's one must wonder, Who were these titans of reason really?