The hard facts:
Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Publisher: Picador, 1st edition (August 31, 2010)
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Thomas Cromwell is born as only son of a violent smith and petty criminal in the small village of Putney near London. He spends his childhood earning some pennies unloading ships and getting into fights with other boys. After being beaten up especially badly by his father, he escapes with the help of his older sister. He flees to the continent where he works his way up from a soldier in the French Army to a scribe to Belgian wool merchants, and eventually to banker in Italy. He returns to England and finds employment in the household of Cardinal Wolsey, a favorite of the young King Henry VIII. He not only survives the fall of the Cardinal, who has become his friend, teacher, and patron, but also prospers in the wake of the legal turmoil around the king’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the power struggle with the Pope in Rome. While Cromwell is the rising star at court, as far as lawyers go, he has to face personal tragedies as he loses his wife and both his daughters to the sweating sickness within a short period of time. He sends his surviving son to school to groom him as his successor but soon learns that he has neither the interest nor the talents to become a scholar. To help promote his household, Cromwell fosters several young boys and also adopts his niece and nephew after their parents die. While he works days and nights promoting the cause of King Henry’s divorce, his fate becomes entangled with the rise of the protestant Boleyn family, as Anne Boleyn prepares to become the next Queen of England. Eventually, after much negotiation and diplomacy, Katherine is disposed and sent to live as the Princess Dowager of Wales to a house in the countryside, Henry declares himself head of the Church of England, and Anne Boleyn is introduced as the future Queen during a visit with the French king. Cromwell’s rise to – sometimes questionable – fame continues as he is named the private secretary of the king. When the new Queen’s promised son turns out to be a daughter, Cromwell prepares the Oath of Supremacy for all English subjects, which was to confirm the king to be the head of the Church of England and his children with Anne Boleyn as the legal heirs to the thrones, cutting out his daughter with Queen Katherine. Many people, among them the prominent Bishop Fisher and Thomas More lose their lives, refusing to swear the Oath; the king orders Cromwell to take an inventory of all church properties and wealth in order to keep finance his household and strengthen his new status against the pope in Rome. As Anne Boleyn suffers her first miscarriage, things seem to turn regarding her relationship with the King, and Cromwell is distancing himself, focusing on his new offices and his own household.
Love it! Actually, it’s been a while that I have read a book as good as this one. Hilary Mantel’s writing is challenging and demands focusing on the text. She transform the figure of Thomas Cromwell, who is often portrayed as heartlessly and faithlessly focusing on his work and personal gain. Mantel’s Cromwell still appears stoic in his duties, but also shows the family man behind the public figure, who never recovers from the loss of his wife and daughters. He’s a supportive father and friend, who wines and dines with both friends and political adversaries, helps the less fortunate and acquaintances in need. I am currently reading the second book of the planned trilogy, “Bring up the Bodies”, and love it just as much as the first one. The fact, that “Wolf Hall” has been booked in advance for months and “Bring up the Bodies” was readily available seems to indicate, that most people don’t share my enthusiasm about the book. I’d like to stress again that it’s not the easiest reading material (but far from the most difficult). The third-person perspective Mantel writes in is a little confusing at times, but definitely creates an interesting view on the character of Thomas Cromwell, which prevents relating too much with the character without making him impersonal, if that makes any sense. After a few disappointments in the last months, I now highly recommend this book!