‘Wolf Hall’ : The historical literature phenomenon


On 5th March, the third book in the best-selling Wolf Hall series: The Mirror and the Light, was released, bringing to a conclusion Hillary Mantel’s epic tale of Henry VIII’s most ambiguous minister: Thomas Cromwell. As the final release in the trilogy, many expect the novel to chart the downfall of Cromwell which resulted in his execution, especially as the previous entry Bring up the Bodies ended with the advisor reaching the zenith of his power. 

There’s something about the way that Mantel has crafted this series which has hit a gold mine of literary curiosity. It’s almost a cliche now that the most salacious and fascinating era of British royal history is the Tudor period. Henry VIII’s six wives, the beheadings and the scheming debauchery have been the subject of numerous adaptations, from the hit musical Six to countless films and TV shows such as A Man for All Seasons and The Tudors. But, unlike most depictions of the period, Mantel has skilfully crafted a world that feels applicable to 21st century life while also grounding itself in historical accuracy. For instance, before delving into the novels myself, my A-Level History teacher confessed to sometimes using extracts from the first book when teaching lower school history (I’m sure University professors would find that blasphemous, but I digress). 

Part of the success of its narrative is that it centres itself on one of the relatively obscure Tudor figures

But the point still stands that the appeals of Wolf Hall are multifaceted. One can read a thoroughly compelling story while feeling intellectually stimulated. Part of the success of its narrative is that it centres itself on one of the relatively obscure Tudor figures: Thomas Cromwell. The key advisor to Henry VIII is an ambiguous individual, a “master of phantoms” and an ambitious social climber who stands out from the sea of aristocrats and sycophants of the Tudor Court. Cromwell is deeply human, and Mantel injects him with both light and shade to make him wholly three-dimensional. In his scenes with Henry, he’s fearful, yet in other moments, such as his interrogation of Anne’s alleged lovers in Bring up the Bodies, he can be intimidating, sadistic and bloodthirsty. The world of Tudor intrigue is a bloody theatre, and Cromwell’s uncomfortable position in the court makes for an exciting yet nervy read. 

Mantel injects him with both light and shade to make him wholly three-dimensional

Thus, what makes the long awaited release of The Mirror and the Light so exciting is that it will give readers Cromwell’s inevitable reckoning. One of the joys of historical fiction is that we know in advance what will happen to these individuals. The Anne of Cleve’s marriage proposal results in Cromwell’s death, but the intrigue lies in the narrative of events that lead to that conclusion, and the thematic approaches Mantel takes to get there. I expect the novel to end with stark parallels to the fate of Anne Boleyn, whose death made up a huge portion of Bring up the Bodies. Both she and Cromwell subverted their initial status to meet their own ends. They manipulated political developments for personal progression, and the symmetry of Cromwell overreaching himself, in much the same way Boleyn did, would provide for a richly satisfying climax to a series which has touched on the perils of gaining too much power in a Court where favour is particularly fickle. 

At nine hundred and twelve pages in the hardback edition (the longest in the trilogy by far), Mantel has plenty of room to construct the end of Cromwell’s story. I for one cannot wait to dig in to The Mirror and the Light. 

Image: Johannes Plenio, Pixabay

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