The Booker Prize Winner is a generous prism that colorfully reflects Thomas Cromwell and jarringly refracts Thomas More as they influence Tudor England.
It would be impossible for Wolf Hall to be to have too many pages. Anyone familiar with Tudor history knows that the life stories of Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More end, and Hilary Mantel makes readers want those life stories to continue. The fictionalized history shines through the perceptions of Thomas Cromwell, and he sees England through daring eyes.
Thomas Cromwell's Point of ViewSeeing with Cromwell's expansive, omniscient perspectives is compelling and inviting. Cromwell laughs at Charles Brandon, and readers laugh with him. Cromwell notices Anne Boleyn's beauty increasing with her power, and through his eyes, readers notice new details of her neckline. When the Duke of Norfolk offends Thomas Cromwell, the reader bristles, too.
Lending new characterizations to lesser known figures, such as Rafe Sadler, enhances the reading experience of Wolf Hall. Mantel's details to characters who are already fictionalized with multiple views, such as Henry Viii, seem so authentic and authoritarian that readers feel a sense of relief, as if Wolf Hall has finally unravelled the true identity of the faces in the museum paintings. The one area where Cromwell's perspective feels wobbly is his hybrid resentment-admiration of Thomas More. Through Thomas Cromwell's eyes, the beloved Thomas More is less than his reputation suggests.
Thomas Cromwell's MirrorAs pointed out on The Thomas More Book Club site, Mantel uses Cromwell's ability to uncover the hidden flaws in More's new rug to demonstrate how only the talented eyes of Cromwell can see the hidden flaws in More. When More is imprisoned on charges violating Cromwell-authored laws, Cromwell struggles to accept that More will not sign the oath. Cromwell bitterly complains that he is not getting work done and that even from the Tower, More has too much control over events. Frustrated, Cromwell confronts the placid More, saying, "You call history your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, and when I hold it up, it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer..." (p. 463)
The beauty of this scene hints at the Mantel's wide talents. Her uses of metaphor and dialogue share a rare accuracy; twin arrows flying to the same mark. What is more remarkable is what the reader discovers upon reflection. If Thomas More looks through Cromwell's mirror and sees a vain and dangerous man, More will not be the reflection shown when Cromwell turns the mirror. Then Cromwell will be seeing his own reflection, the reflection of a killer.
Thomas Cromwell, KillerThroughout the novel, Cromwell avoids memories of a person he killed during his shadowy days in Italy. He is disturbed to hear a musician say he looks like a murderer, and Cromwell is equally disturbed when Gregory confirms that assessment. Cromwell equally avoids recognizing that his laws and his rigged juries actually lead to death.
Instead of focusing on the deaths of the Carthusian monks, Cromwell wonders how More and his daughter can watch the so calmly. Instead of answering Norfolk's accusation that the privy council is setting up John Fisher and Thomas More to be murdered, Cromwell retreats and watches quietly. When More is waiting for execution, Cromwell can not resist visiting him in the Tower, but he separates himself from knowing More, dropping his name and looking at him as "the prisoner".
Hilary Mantel's Use of the Third PersonThere are an abundance of Thomases in Wolf Hall, an unfortunate circumstance created by historical fact. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey holds the puppet strings in Henry's reign. Wosley mentors Thomas Cromwell, who must navigate through a sea of Thomases: clever Thomas More, powerful Thomas Howard, sly Thomas Boleyn. Rather than call Cromwell by his Christian name, Mantel settles on the pronoun "he", which is the only confusing part of the book. Even in the audiobook edition of Wolf Hall, reader Simon Slater confuses which "he" is speaking, and confuses Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell as a result.
In the upcoming sequel, Cromwell will face the beheading of Anne Boleyn and her alleged lovers, which are historically thought to have been set-up by Cromwell, and already in the first book, he is shown retreating from the Boleyn family and planning to vacation with the King when he visits the Seymores at their home, Wolf Hall. This may be when Cromwell moves from "he" to "I" in his narration, as he begins to plan his own power grabs so that he can manipulate a prince, just as his mentor Wolsey manipulated Henry.
History suggests that any problems between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell came from different ethical standards. Historians traditionally present More as having many of ethical standards, and Cromwell as having few, if any. Hilary Mantel is not a historian, although Wolf Hall reflects exceptional research. Just as Wicked managed to humanize the Wicked Witch of the West at the expense of Glenda the Good Witch,Wolf Hall humanizes Thomas Cromwell at the expense of Thomas More.
Publication InformationWolf Hall was published by Henry Hold in October 2009. It is available as a Kindle book, and there is an enhanced UK Wolf Hall app. The ISBN is 0805080686.
The Wolf Hall audio book was released by Macmillan Audio in November, 2009. It is read by Simon Slater. The ISBN is 1427210160.
This article was originally published in November 2009. Links may go to the Wayback Machine.
Ally Sharp is a teacher, writer and editor, and technology trainer.