Author: Hilary Mantel
Format: 560 pages , audio 18 discs (approx 24 hrs)
Characters: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn, Cardinal Woolsey
Subject: Thomas Cromwell
Setting: England 1529-1534
Genre: historical fiction
Source: public library
Challenge: Support your public library, Audio books
The title of this Man Booker Prize book is a bit misleading. Wolf Hall is the home of the Seymour family, and while they were quite influential in Henry VIII's reign, I don't remember even one scene being set there. Nor was the book about the Seymours. This is the story of Thomas Cromwell, beginning with his abused childhood, through his vagabond but experience-rich youth when he traveled far from England throughout Europe, fighting for the French, learning several languages, and honing his intellectual and accounting skills. It concentrates on the years 1529 through 1534 (about the end of the Boleyn reign.)
After his return to England, Cromwell lands a position in the employ of Cardinal Woolsey. Although he remained loyal and grateful to Woolsey, he managed to distance himself from Woolsey's troubles with Henry by keeping his religious convictions very private--in fact, one is left somewhat unsure even at the end as to what were Cromwell's true beliefs about organized religion. In the meantime, he (Cromwell) is diligent about employing and training young, bright, under-advantaged youths to carry on his work.
Before reading this, I did not have many preconceptions of what made Thomas Cromwell tick. Mantel does a superb job of providing us background for his actions, his motivations and his relationships with some of the most powerful people of the era. His relationship with Thomas More is presented as sympathetic, although I felt an almost repugnance for the More portrayed here. Ann Boleyn also comes off rather negatively, but it is fascinating to see Mantel showing us Ann B and Cromwell using each other to get where they wanted to go. And of course, there is his relationship with Henry himself. Mantel's Cromwell seems to be able to tell H the VIII the blunt truth with considerable impunity, and thus is often recruited by other nobles to be the bearer of not good tidings.
Finally, I was enthralled by the portrayal of Ann's sister Mary Boleyn. Was she gullible, vulnerable and used? Or conniving, sly, and manipulating?
This book is long, but written to move right along. I listened to the audio version which was exceptionally well done by Simon Slater. It is a book where it is sometimes difficult to tell who is actually speaking, and Slater's intonation certainly helps sort that out. The descriptions of living conditions, dress, manners, and customs are all richly elaborated, and Mantel uses just enough vernacular to make it truly authentic without making it difficult to follow. 5 Stars.