Wolf Hall was the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize, probably the most prestigious award for novels in the English speaking world. Unlike many winners of the award, it is not a dauntingly challenging work, demanding dedication and concentration from the reader. Wolf Hall, though a book of 650 pages, is acccessible and readily enjoyable, whilst being intelligent and stimulating.
It is an historical novel, set in one of the most colourful and dramatic periods of English history, the years 1529 to 1536 during which Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, and during which the English Church broke with Rome. The cast is a large one, though rarely confusing, and a very wide range of social settings and types of people appear. But at the centre is Thomas Cromwell, a man of humble origins who rose during this period to be the king's most trusted adviser, and the possessor of great wealth and influence. The novel is recounted in the third person, and usually in the present tense, and we encounter Cromwell in a wide variety of situations, and intereacting with everyone from the king to labourers and people on the fringes of society.
Mantel creates an attractive Cromwell. He is a man of affairs and no otherworldly saint, but he is a loyal servant first of Cardinal Wolsey and then of the king, a good friend, an often compaasionate opponent, a devoted family man, generous to the underdog. He is the most competent of men, a lawyer, administrator, and financial manager of immense skill, a competent linguist in several languages, but also able to turn his hand to cooking a splendid dinner or shoeing a horse. Perhaps as a central figure Cromwell is a bit too perfect, but Mantel is very skillful in making a somewhat unlikely hero attactive to the reader.
Mantel's skill in evoking early Tudor England is immense. She clearly has done extensive reaearch, but her learning is worn lightly, and the world she creates is fascinating, vivid, and convincing. There is no sense of anachronism: one does not have the sense here, as often with historical novels, that some of the characters have twentieth or twenty-first century mindsets inside clothing from centuries past. The language is modern but not jarringly so: the reader is not challenged by any of 'ye olde Englishe speeche'. It is, however, not always easy to know who is speaking. Mantel avoids guidelines of the 'Cromwell replied' kind. The reader will probably find it useful to assume that he' normally means Cromwell.
Modern attitudes to Thomas Cromwell have probably been shaped in large part by Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, which commenced life as a radio play in 1954 but is better known in the 1960 stage version and the 1966 film. In Bolt's work Cromwell is an unscrupulous and ruthless opportunist who contrasts with Thomas More, the saintly martyr for freedom of conscience. There is evidence (including an interview available on YouTube) that Mantel set delibertely about presenting a diametrically opposite view. Her Cromwell is clearly a true 'man for all seasons'; her More, though achieving a certain dignity as his end (which is also the end of the book) approaches, is a shabby, mean-spirited, cruel, religious fanatic. He is probably the closest thing to a villain in Wolf Hall , which generally allows its characters to speak for themselves, and to engender in us some sympathy for their situation and point of view.
It has been suggested that Mantel uses the freedom of the novelist to shed new light on the history of the period, but her work is of course not history, and leading Tudor historian David Starkey has described it as 'tosh'. Certainly not all historians views Cromwell so sympathetically. Past generations admired him as an important creator of the early modern English administrative system and as a man who did much to make England Protestant, but more recently he has been widely viewed as vicious, unscrupulous and cruel, and outraqesously avaricious.
Mantel is said to be working on a follow-up novel dealing with the remaining years of Cromwell's career (which of course ended on the executioner's block, like that of so many who served Henry VIII). This reader looks forward to it with eager anticipation.