When I was in junior high school I saw A Man for All Seasons and Anne of a Thousand Days fairly close to each other. They jumble a bit in my mind, and I often find myself remembering Burton as Henry VIII in scenes with Paul Scofield as Thomas More (no--that would have been Robert Shaw, in a masterful stroke of hideous mis-casting). Nonetheless, those two films early on formed many of my ideas about that period of British history. Then add in Keith Mitchell in The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth. Now add in all my catechism classes as a good Catholic girl. And that the chapel at my graduate school (as at many) was St. Thomas More Chapel. I think you can see where I'm going with this.
So, I came to Wolf Hall thinking that I was venturing into well-known territories. The tragedy of Henry's conflicted conscience and libido; the noble Katherine; the pitiable Mary; the horrible Anne; the venal Wolsey; the ambitious Norfolk; the wise More; and the greedy, villainous Thomas Cromwell. I was utterly unprepared for what I found instead.
This book is told from the point of view of Cromwell. In its pages you find a patriotic Wolsey, a fragile Henry, and all of the other characters are painted in equally unforeseen ways. Most surprising of all in their presentations are More, and most especially Cromwell--who we see as son, father, husband, widower, master, and friend. I'm not sure I'll ever forgive Mantel for creating a Cromwell I can care about.
The writing itself is a marvel, and I fully understand why it won the Booker. While unrelentingly first person, there is a surprising lack of ego in the voice, and at times it wanders into dream, or fever, and yet there is never any sense of wrongness, just a change of perspective that throws everything before and after into a new light.
As this book ends Thomas More has just lost his head. There are more volumes to come, we are told. I'm not sure I can bear to read them, because, as history tells us, the lords pull Cromwell down, and Henry claims his head. This is a moment in history I am used to cheering. I wonder if I am strong enough, brave enough, to face a chance that I will mourn this Cromwell. Or even that I may weep.