Before the hit Broadway play and BBC miniseries, there was Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel. Spanning more than 600 pages, yet written in terse, razor-sharp prose that mirrors the cunning mind of its protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall details Cromwell’s rise from blacksmith’s son to right-hand man of Henry VIII. It’s an unforgiving tale about the mechanics of power, filtered through the mind of a man who for centuries has lived in the shadows. Here, we shed some light on Cromwell and the woman who brought him (back) to life.
1. MANTEL WAS SUPPOSED TO BE WRITING A DIFFERENT BOOK.
She signed a contract for two books—one, a novel about Thomas Cromwell, and the other a semi-autobiographical book about a woman living in Africa in the '70s. Mantel began writing the latter but found herself disturbed by memories of her own experiences in Botswana, where her husband worked as a geologist, and where she suffered through a miscarriage, a close friend’s suicide and the pains of what would later be diagnosed as endometriosis. So she turned to Wolf Hall and felt immediately better. “I know the subject matter’s dire, but I was filled with a sense of glee and power,” she told The New Yorker.
2. THE OPENING LINE BEGAN AS A COMMAND TO HERSELF.
“So now get up.” The line came to Mantel as she was lying in bed one morning, and at first she took it as a command: Get up, get writing. But then she realized this was Walter Cromwell speaking to his son, Thomas, after knocking him down. It established the brutality of the young Cromwell’s childhood and resonated thematically for a man who would not only get up but rise through the ranks of society. And with that, Mantel was off and running.
3. SHE STUCK TO THE FACTS.
Although she was writing historical fiction, Mantel wanted to hew as closely as possible to the “historical” part. As she told NPR in a 2012 interview: “I make up as little as possible … I try to run up all the accounts side by side to see where the contradictions are and to look where things have gone missing. And it's really in the gap—it's in the erasures—that I think the novelist can best go to work, because inevitably in history in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened.”
4. THOMAS CROMWELL LEFT BEHIND A PAPER TRAIL, BUT NOT A PERSONAL LIFE.
As the historical record goes, Cromwell’s public life is well documented, but the man himself is a mystery. This left ample room for Mantel to interpret him personally, and to give him back some of the humanity that’s been lost over the centuries. “He is a nightmare for biographers and a gift for a novelist,” Mantel has said.
5. SHE HAD A THOMAS CROMWELL SCHOLAR ON CALL.
In 2005, an acquaintance introduced Mantel to Mary Robertson, the curator of English historical manuscripts at The Huntington Library. Robertson had written her doctoral dissertation on Cromwell, and provided Mantel a copy. The author soon began emailing questions to Robertson, and would bounce ideas off her throughout the writing process. So grateful was Mantel that she dedicated the book to Robertson: “To my singular friend Mary Robertson this book be given.”
6. SHE RESEARCHED MUCH OF THE BOOK WHILE SHE WAS WRITING.
Research, Mantel has noted, is a creative process unto itself; one that thrives off the writing process, and vice versa. “I don’t do a block of research and then write,” she told The Paris Review. “It’s a fluid movement between one thing and another."
7. SHE KNEW SHE HAD TO FINISH THE BOOK BY 2009.
That was the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s coronation, which was a big deal in England. After all the Henry hoopla, Mantel knew, people would not be very receptive to another book about his life.
8. THE PRONOUN USAGE FRUSTRATED READERS.
Because the novel is filtered through Cromwell’s perspective—Mantel says she envisioned a camera behind his eyes—he often appears as “he” rather than “Cromwell.” “It didn’t make sense to call him ‘Cromwell,' as if he were somewhere across the room,” Mantel wrote in the Guardian. Nevertheless, some readers expressed frustration with the indistinctness of “he” in scenes with more than one male character. Mantel seemed to acknowledge the confusion (or perhaps poke fun at it?) in the series’ next book, Bring Up the Bodies, with an early reference to “he, Thomas Cromwell.”
9. THE TITLE IS HEAVY WITH SYMBOLIC MEANING.
Wolf Hall refers to the home of the Seymour family—a place Henry visits only at the very end of the novel—yet Mantel thought it was an appropriate name for Henry’s court. In a story steeped in treachery, the title also alludes to the Latin saying “homo homini lupus”: Man is a wolf to his fellow man.
10. IT WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE PART OF A TRILOGY.
Not until she started exploring Cromwell’s protracted duel with the pious-to-a-fault Thomas More did Mantel realize she had more than one book on her hands.
11. THE DIFFICULTY OF CROMWELL'S RISE TO POWER CANNOT BE OVERSTATED.
Rags-to-riches stories are so commonplace now that it’s easy to discount Thomas Cromwell’s ascendance. But in 16th century England, this sort of thing did not happen, period. The layers of society were rigid, and success was frequently a matter of birthright. “No one of Cromwell’s background had attained the heights of power in this way before,” Mantel said in a recent interview. “And I wondered, what did that take? What unique combination of personal qualities?”
12. PRINCE CHARLES IS A BIG FAN.
Well, of the BBC miniseries at least. He said as much to Mantel when he made her a Dame earlier this year. Which is interesting, given that a royal biographer recently likened Charles’ household to Wolf Hall.