As a girl I was obsessed with books about Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth I (and indeed about all the queens and princesses of England). My favorites were by authors like Margaret Campbell Barnes (whose 1944 classic Brief Gaudy Hour is still in print) and Jean Plaidy, whose Tudor Saga and Stuart Saga kept me occupied for an entire summer when I was about 12. More recent entries to the canon include books by Alison Weir and Phillipa Gregory. I am not sure why, but I haven't liked these as much. Maybe I just got tired of them all after a while.
But now Hilary Mantel has given us Wolf Hall, which tells the story again from an entirely new angle, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's most trusted adviser throughout the English Reformation, the man who oversaw Henry's divorce from Catherine and facilitated Anne's ascension to the throne. "Facilitated" is the operative word here, for, as Mantel depicts him, Cromwell is a master at the game of thrones: a skilled negotiator, a lawyer, a financier, and most interesting of all, a virtuoso at empathy, at figuring out exactly how to convince each player to go along with Henry's plans.
Cromwell was never a central character in the books I read as a girl. Along with Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, he was one of the boring old men who filled in the background. But Mantel has turned Cromwell into a fascinating character and -- dare I say it? -- I now have a crush on him.
Mantel's Cromwell is a warm, sensitive man who for years mourns the death of his wife and daughters, who fosters several young nephews with wisdom and affection, who works the system (such as it is) to arrive at the fairest settlement he can for Catherine and her daughter Mary, and who never forgets (or tries to hide) his humble origins as the son of a blacksmith.
Mantel writes the whole book as if we are observing from a camera mounted on Cromwel''s head. The narrative hews so closely to his perspective that she simply refers to Cromwell as "he" throughout the novel, sometimes causing confusion, until you understand what she's doing. It's very effective in making the reader identify closely with Cromwell's point of view. Know also that this book is very long and slow-going. It took me months to finish it, though I confess to occasionally cheating on Master Cromwell with various other (less demanding) books.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.