Mantel portrays Thomas Cromwell as a great political fixer, who can more than hold his own at Henry VIII's court because he's already rubbed shoulders with Niccolò Machiavelli and the Borgias – Mantel has Thomas More call T. C. “an Italian through and through.”
“We shall have to develop a hand signal for 'Back off, our prince is fucking this man's daughter.' He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on.”
We're in a world of clever gestures, subtle courtiers and their double meanings – a world richly tapestried with ironies, historical foreshadowings, and meditations on power.
“A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fear, fantasies, desires.”
Henry VIII is particularly well drawn, a sensitive man understandably torn between his desire for Anne Boleyn, his need to bear a son for the security of the realm, and his instinctive religious conservatism.
“He has taught Henry to call the Pope 'the Bishop of Rome.' To laugh when his name is mentioned. If it is uncertain laughter, it is better than his former genuflection.”
Fiction writers have tended to sympathize with Thomas More – R. A. Lafferty's Past Master is perhaps the extreme culmination of this More-idolizing tendency. Mantel makes of More a man for rather few seasons – the point is well made that a man willing to die for his principles is all too often a man willing to torture for his principles. Mantel's T. C. accuses More of playing to the gallery of posterity, pompously scripting his own martyrdom instead of facing up to what has to be done.
“Do you know what I hate? I hate to be part of this play, which is entirely devised by him. I hate the time it will take that could be better spent. I hate it that minds could be better employed, I hate to see our lives going by, because depend upon it, we will all be feeling our age before his pageant is played out. And what I hate most is that Master More sits in the audience and sniggers when I trip over my lines, for he has written all the parts.”
Having worked for merchant bankers in the Netherlands, T. C. is a fit hero for an age of globalization – competent, pragmatic and ideologically flexible. Mantel follows historian G. R. Elton in seeing T. C. not as a monster but as a reformer. Or at least, she sees him as a reformer haunted by the possibility he's also a monster. For while Shakespeare's villains know they're monsters, Mantel's T.C. sees everything clearly except the ways his own power corrupts him, which he senses only dimly.
The main action of Wolf Hall covers the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, England's resulting break with the Church of Rome, and More's execution. The reader cannot but be left craving the rest of the story – Mantel's Anne Boleyn is in her way as powerful a character as Robert Graves's Empress Livia, and I felt cheated when I realized the book would finish before she reached the chopping block. The Dissolution of the Monasteries has so far only been foreshadowed, as has T. C.'s eventual fall, for all of which we must wait until the sequel... there is going to be a sequel, right?