Hilary Mantel sets a new standard for historical fiction with her latest novel Wolf Hall, a riveting portrait of Thomas Cromwell, chief advisor to King Henry VIII and a significant political figure in Tudor England. Mantel’s crystalline style, piercing eye and interest in, shall we say, the darker side of human nature, together with a real respect for historical accuracy, make this novel an engrossing, enveloping read.

Wolf Hall is set in an England on the brink of disaster. It is 1520 and Henry VIII, desiring a male heir, wishes to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn, despite the opposition of half his kingdom, the Pope and much of Europe. Meanwhile, the Yorks are plotting to put one of their own on the throne. Into the middle of this turbulence walks Thomas Cromwell, lowly born but protected by the king’s advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell was a financier with a brilliant grasp of international politics. Multi-lingual and self-taught, both ruthless and generous, he quickly surpassed even Wolsey as close confidante to the king and built up a coterie of followers that equaled any modern Mafia don. In the novel—as in his life—as Cromwell grows in power, the danger and intrigue does as well. Knowing the trajectory of his career, familiar to many from Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, in no way interferes with the deliciousness of the unfolding tragedy.

The Tudor period has been over-romanticized in books and films, especially lately, but Mantel keeps her focus less on the heaving bosoms and changing bed partners and more on the corruption, the scheming and the petty cruelties. She writes in the present tense, a device that in lesser hands might seem showy and self-conscious, but here propels the action forward while providing great insight into Cromwell’s personality. With a generous cast of characters and meticulous descriptions of castle, town and countryside, Mantel evokes the era with an unfussy ease. Despite the length and the intricacy of the story told, there is a freshness and rigor to this compelling novel that will delight and engage any reader. 

Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.

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