I've had a fascination with Henry VIII since childhood mostly because I wondered how he could coldly discard his wives in such dramatic fashion. In recent years I haven't been alone in my interest in the Tudor family with the success of the tv show The Tudors, Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl and Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Elizabeth I.
Hilary Mantel's book Wolf Hall is definitely a welcome addition to the recent group of Tudor-related projects in that it presents the story of Henry VIII through the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell. In other books Cromwell is seen as a somewhat one-dimensional figure, a typical bureaucrat who unquestioningly carried out the wishes of his king. Not so in this book. Mantel goes into detail throughout the book outlining the years before Cromwell joins the civil service and provides us with a picture of a well-rounded, shrewd and downright intimidating figure. From his humble beginnings as a blacksmith's son in Putney (a fact which the Dukes all seem to want to bring up whenever he gets the best of them) and his days as a mercenary, he became the most powerful civil servant in the country. Due to his colourful past and proximity to Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII, Cromwell reveals himself as a fascinating narrator both as an individual voice and as a player in a larger political drama. And this book contains drama aplenty as it follows the royal struggle between Henry and Katherine of Aragon and his tempestuous romance with Anne Boleyn.
One last aspect of the book worth noting is the treatment of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's sister who became Henry's mistress prior to Anne. Mary is the narrator of the popular novel The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory where she is portrayed as being a victim of her relatives' political aspirations who eventually finds freedom by leaving royal intrigues behind. Cromwell has a slightly different opinion of Mary. Though he finds himself attracted to Mary, he is mistrustful of her because he feels that her flirtations mask her shrewdness. I tend to believe Mantel's characterization of Mary more than others because it makes more sense than those who cast her as a mere pawn. Whatever I think of Henry as a person, he was most definitely particular about the women in his company. A fact that sent a few women to country estates and others to the executioner.