It is the story of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power under Henry VIII and his part in the English Reformation and the relationship and marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn. I confess my attention drifted in and out a bit for the first few CDs but it begins with he early life, as a blacksmith's son, where he was treated mostly with harshness and neglect. He becomes later in life, after some years abroad as both a mercenary and a merchant, a close advisor to Cardinal Wosley, a man who had a dominant influence over the court of Henry. The events surrounding the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon form the central story of the book. It follows Wolsey's fall from favour after he is unable to obtain the annulment that Henry demands, though it appears to be the direct influence of Anne that leads to his eventual death. Cromwell survives this fall from grace and instead finds himself drawn further into court and over the next few years becomes Henry's closest advisor, presiding over the eventual dissolution of his first marriage and having extensive influence over the House of Commons.
Anyway, for those who are interested, the history of the period is easy enough to look up. The research that must have gone into the book is extensive and impressive; I was totally sucked in to the history, even though it is a part of history that people think they know, the intricacies of the story were fascinating. For a start I had never realised how long the whole thing went on, over seven years from Henry's first obsession with Anne to actually being able to marry her (and she appeared to manage to keep him out of her bed the entire time, quite a feat). And mixed up with the personal story is the political/religious aspect, the pressure for reformation, already happening across europe, people's changing attitudes to the church and the desire for more knowledge and understanding. So you have the two sides of the Catholic church, one side backing Catherine and the other taking advantage of Henry's anger with Rome (over the annulment) and using it to their advantage, offering him what he wants and getting what they want which is freedom from the control of Rome. It is a really powerful political drama, with a cast of domineering characters, all struggling to maintain their influence. What I really liked were the women, who are so often relegated to mere chattels in the history books, but here they are real people, often with more influence of their own; Catherine, her daughter Mary, and even Mary Boleyn. Though equally Henry himself becomes more of a real person, where he is so often swallowed up by history, being 'that king who beheaded all those wives', Cromwell spends so much time with him and observes him so closely, we get to see him more human. Anne Boleyn I came to love to hate. M thought I was being a bit harsh when I said I felt like she deserved what she got in the end. But she did. She played the game to get what she wanted, which was to be queen. She used people, manipulated, bought and sold influence, and in the end the whole thing turned on her. I guess there has to be some pity there too, because Henry is fickle, and she is a victim of biology (you begin to wonder why these royal women had so much trouble when the average woman at the time probably had a dozen children). And it took me ages to find out the relevance of the title; Wulfhall is the family seat of the Seymour family and Jane herself appears in passing in the story, being present at court some times, but you notice her name immediately and it hangs there, ominously, because of course you know the next part of the story, you know where it is leading and how it will end.
But there is the other side to the story that I found just as engaging, and that is the part that is 'invented', because Mantel creates the personal, intimate side of Thomas Cromwell. He is a real family man, adores his children and is a very benign employer, seeming to run a household that is relaxed, happy and carefree. He picks up waifs and strays and gives them a home and takes seriously his social responsibilities to those less fortunate; a real 'christian', though his own personal beliefs are not really something that is dwelt on. There is this lovely scene where he is holding a religious text that had belonged to his wife (she and his daughters succumbed to the 'sweating sickness' and he never remarries) and he imagines her holding it, his enduring love for her throughout the book, in an environment where most marriages seem to be about convenience and financial advantage, it very poignant. Because so much of it is historical detail you are not sure how much is invention or if much is known about him personally, but she really succeeds in making him into a person I cared about and sympathised with deeply. He is loyal and trustworthy, and keeps his own council. He works at a prodigious rate, never seeming to tire, is at the beck and call of the King, who is frequently as demanding as a petulant toddler, and yet he appears to admire and even to genuinely like him. I think he achieved all he did because of an ability to see all sides and weigh things up carefully, and of course is plainly very intelligent. A very shrewd politician he mostly keeps his own views, both political and religious, to himself, in favour of doing what is expected of him by the king. In his work and his behaviour he is not directly seeking advantage for himself, and that is almost why the advantages seem to come to him, he is genuinely highly principled and not self-seeking. He is obviously involved in other less savoury aspects of the time; arrest and tortures, and gruesome public executions were commonplace, meted out to rich and poor alike for many and various forms of disloyalty, but he seems to try and distance himself from these, returning regularly to his family and his beloved home at Austin Friars.
Add to all this the extensive cast of minor characters who return over again, from his family to other less consequential historical/political figures, all of whom add depth to the story. The social history is also extensive in detail; the importance of the church in everyday life, how it preoccupied the thinking and dominated lives of ordinary people, the episodes of the plague and other diseases interrupting the normal flow of life. Though much of it is life as seen from the more affluent side of society it is all part of what draws you in to the story and the history, making it more vivid.
I am still not sure if I could have ever read this book, but I would certainly highly recommend it; the rewards of such a book match the effort necessary to obtain them. I'm sorry I can't add quotes, I do not have the text of the book to refer to, because the writing is so wonderful, she captures the subtleties of the situation and the conversations, the descriptions, particularly of his encounters with Anne are excellent, and the period detailing is beautifully done. I can imagine this book would make perfect background reading for anyone studying the period, the historical detail in immense (I read an interview where she describes keeping notes on each character detailing where they were at each moment, so she didn't accidentally write them into a situation where they could not possibly have been) and it adds so much atmosphere to such a well studied part of our history.
The review in the Guardian from when it was first published finishes thus, and I could not have put it better: