It's hardly an understatement to say that historical fiction fans the world over were rejoicing this past year when Hilary Mantel's epic Tudor-era novel Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for fiction.
Despite A Reader's Respite's love-hate relationship (okay, mostly hate) with previous Booker-winning novels, we weren't going to miss out on this one.
Mantel chose probably one of the most enigmatic players of Tudor England, the oft-vilified Thomas Cromwell, to explore the court of Henry VIII. Cromwell, who deftly weaves between memories of his childhood and present 16th-century day, is presented as a tolerant, wise lawyer with a business acumen unsurpassed in his time.
Born a mere commoner into abject poverty, Cromwell rose through the ranks of the Tudor court in meteoric fashion. The right-hand man of Cardinal Wolsey, himself the son of a butcher, Cromwell deftly avoided the Cardinal's sad fate by delivering to Henry VIII precisely what the Cardinal could not: a divorce from Katherine of Aragon.
Wolsey appears in the pages as benevolent, if slightly bewildered by the unexpected rise of Anne Boleyn. "...Anne is not a carnal being, she is a calculating being, with a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes." After his demise at the hands of the Boleyn family, Cromwell becomes the go-to man of Henry himself and facilitates England's break with the Pope and the Church of Rome.
And while the reader certainly becomes a part of Cromwell's life, it should not be mistaken that this novel is entirely about Thomas Cromwell. The novel is, in point of fact, a full-fledged portrait of the Henry VIII's court: the characters, the intrigue and the political backroom deals where fortunes were made and heads were lost. "There's no man in the room who doesn't want Henry to have what he wants. Their lives and fortunes depend on it."
The Duke of Norfolk ("If you tell Norfolk anything, he will twist it into treason.") skips nimbly across the pages, a coarse man full of bluster, while Thomas More is bent on ecclesiastical vengeance, determined to stamp out the Protestant tidal wave sweeping Europe: "He would chain you up, for a mistranslation. He would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you."
Harry Norris, Thomas Wyatt, Mary Boleyn, Stephen Gardiner, Charles Brandon all feature prominently and are, for the student of Tudor history, a veritable feast of characters.
Overflowing with period detail and a droll wit, this is not an introductory novel to the Tudors. The sheer volume of characters and the depth of their motivations make this a complex story better suited, or at least most enjoyed, by those who have a good grasp of the historical players of the time.
Even before he walks in from the kitchens at Austin Friars, the women of the house know that he has been so see Anne.
"So," Johane demands. "Tall or short?"
"I'd heard she was very tall. Sallow, is she not?"
"They say she is graceful. Dances well."
"We did not dance."
Mercy says, "But what do you think? A friend to the gospel?"
He shrugs. "We did not pray."
"Are her teeth good?" Mercy says.
"For God's sake, woman: when she sinks them into me, I'll let you know."
A Reader's Respite thought the novel was, quite simply, brilliant.
Word on the street is that Mantel will produce a sequel to Wolf Hall, one that continues to follow Cromwell's rise to power vis-a-vis Henry's marriage to his third wife, Jane Seymour, which will produce the long-awaited male heir to the Tudor throne.
Required FTC Disclosure: This novel was furnished to A Reader's Respite by a publicist. It was drooled over and devoured in a most un-ladylike manner and remains on our permanent bookshelf, drool and all.