PHUKET: Hilary Mantel was a 56-year-old English novelist of indifferent success, when she sat down to write a novel about Thomas Cromwell, the chief adviser to Henry VIII. As she recounts in a recent profile in The New Yorker
: "I was filled with glee and a sense of power, a sense that I knew how to do this... I knew from the first paragraph that this was going to be the best thing I’d ever done."
The reader shares her exhilaration, as did the judges of the Man Booker Prize, who awarded her novel Wolf Hall
(Fourth Estate, London, 2009, 652pp) the coveted prize in 2009. Amazingly, she won it again just three years later for her sequel Bring Up the Dead
opens with 15-year-old Thomas Cromwell slithering like an eel on the cobblestones of his household courtyard. He has been knocked on the head and now is being kicked into oblivion by his father Walter: blacksmith, brewer and brawler, town drunk of Putney, on the outskirts of London.
Nursing his wounds, Thomas takes off for France to enlist in any war that will have him. He is next seen at the age of 40, the trusted henchman of Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to Henry VII. Here is Mantel’s thumbnail portrait:
"He is a man of strong build, not tall. . . It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything."
Mantel is clever in keeping the details of Cromwell’s youthful adventures vague. We learn through Cromwell’s sporadic memories that he has been a soldier in France, an accountant for banking families in Florence and Venice, a wool merchant in Antwerp, a lawyer in London.
The year is now 1527 and Henry VIII, besotted with Anne Boleyn, is determined to put aside his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, aunt of Holy Roman Emperor Charles, in favor of producing a male heir from the new queen. Anne Boleyn’s ambitions lead to Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall, though Cromwell stays loyal to him till the end.
All these characters – King Henry, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Queen Margaret – are vividly drawn as are scores of others – nobles, ladies in waiting, ambassadors, secretaries – who swirl around the central crisis of the English court. Thomas Cromwell soon joins them in the thick of it.
His ambition is parallel to the King’s: to wrest control of the church from Rome and plunder the rich monasteries of the countryside. Those of noble blood, often fops and fools, look down on Cromwell’s lowly origins, but the King depends totally on his astute advice on everything from finance to political tactics.
Cromwell’s main antagonist is the new chancellor, the great scholar Thomas More. The two share a complex friendship, but More’s dedication to principal and the papacy leads to his doom on the chopping block. Cromwell is reduced to both anger and grief.
Anne Boleyn is crowned Queen of England and Cromwell proceeds with the plan to transform the Kingdom. "Here, at the close of 1533, his spirit is sturdy, his will strong, his front imperturbable. The courtiers see that he can shape events, mold them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world." "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel is available for download for the kindle from Amazon (click here), or by order through the main bookshops in Phuket.