I am in love with this book. If you haven't heard about it, it is an historical fiction told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII's divorce from his first wife Katherine and his subsequent marriage to Anne Bolyen. It's a great historical fiction, by which I mean to say, it is not a cheesy, poorly researched bodice ripper (a la The Other Boleyn Girl), but a really smart picture of interesting characters.
Because of this book, I am now in love with Thomas Cromwell (an unexpected addition to my list of historical crushes). This book has totally destabalized my perspective on Croms by making him awesome. And, Thomas More, who everyone always thinks is the noble martyr and utopian thinker, turns out to be a bit of a dick!
I'm sure I've just lost some of you (aka, the one of you who reads) with my nerdiness. But I have been following Henry and his merry band of wives and advisors for some time now. In sixth grade, I rented the six-part BBC series about Henry. The videos looked like they were filmed in someone's unfinished basement, but I couldn't get enough of them (I was a grim child, and was horrified and facinated by a King executing two of his wives). Then, in eighth grade, my friend Melissa and I created our own video rendition for a social studies project, and interjected a hip soundtrack including Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" that accompanied the death scene of Henry's true love, Jane Seymour (played with beautiful restraint by Melissa). My prejudices and inclinations towards each of the wives were pretty set at a young age (loved Katherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour, and Catherine Parr; felt bad for Anne of Cleves; was annoyed by Anne Bolyen and Katherine Howard). But I hadn't made my mind up about all the advisors yet.
The Tudors (on Showtime) was, of course, a wonderful show, and colored my opinions of all the hovering noblemen whispering in Henry's ear. Showtime had me believing that More was awesome, and Cromwel was kind of a weasly and slimey social climber. Just look at the casting!
Playing Thomas More: Jeremy Northam (who I find rather dashing)
Playing Thomas Cromwell: James Frain (who is not conventionally attractive, though I have to admit, that mug is growing on me now that I've read Wolf Hall and have started to love Cromwell)
The Tudors, like most depictions of the era, depict More and Cromwell as arch rivals, with More appearing to hold the moral high ground while Cromwell schemes for more power and position. At first glance, the two are certainly natural foils for each other; Cromwell was a self-made man, coming from nothing, while More was from a scholarly/noble family. Cromwell sympathized with the Protestants, while More burned hundreds for possessing Protestant literature. Cromwell and was an active part of the trial that sent More to the executioner for refusing to swear allegiance to Henry and Anne's new line of succession.
But what makes this book so amazing is its nuanced portrayal of the two. And while I certainly came away loving Cromwell and disliking More, the way the relationship between the two is developed is so interesting (they both love having each other as rivals, and ulitimately miss each other and sympathize with each other when they each have setbacks). Also, in the book, Cromwell's love and loyalty for Cardinal Wolsey is surprising and endearing.
The best parts of the book, though, are when Cromwell has to deal with all these ineffectual idiot Dukes! He is so competent, and is plagued with such assinine peers! And the author (Hilary Mantel) gives her Cromwell such compelling wit to deal with all of it. Also, her portrayal of his family life is really touching. His relationship with his children and wards was so refreshing in that he wasn't overly affectionate, but found joy and humor in them, while many of his peers at court farmed out child rearing to others, and used children as bargaining tools (especially the daughters!) Now, I am not completely delusional; I realize that this is FICTION. But in the way that the best fiction does, it forces me to revisit what I thought was so obvious.
The book ends before all the other shit goes down with Cromwell and the King. And I can't help be sad knowing that it's not going to end well for him and his family!!! Poor Crommy!
If you have even the tiniest of tiny nerd bones in your body, I cannot recommend this book enough!