Wolf Hall, the first installment of a trilogy by Hilary Mantel on England under Henry VIII, recounts the often-told story of the King’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn from the viewpoint of an unlikely protagonist. The book centers on the life experience and personal consciousness of Thomas Cromwell, a man of obscure origins who emerged in 1532 as Henry’s right-hand man in the King’s “Great Matter” and served as his chief minister until his execution in 1540. Henry’s personal quest to divorce his aging queen and marry a younger woman occasioned England’s split from the Catholic Church, and it shaped the course of the Protestant Reformation in England and galvanized the emergence of a Protestant national identity for the English. Mantel focuses on Cromwell as a way to engage the modern debate over Henry VIII and the politics of change in his reign. As the novelist takes a firm position in favor of the revolutionary politics of the Reformation, she theorizes history, particularly, the place of fiction in history. Fiction in Wolf Hall at once underscores an understanding of the past as violent and multiple and informs invention and change to the new. As Mantel’s interrogation of history foregrounds the figure of the individual, in this case, Thomas Cromwell, she highlights the way historical fiction, in its plurality and division, frames a progressive vision of history. As Cromwell invents himself out of a personal past of violence and obscurity, he strives for and brings about radical change in England. Fiction, at once an inescapable way to understand the past and the basis for moving beyond it, informs the undertaking to make history.
KEYWORDS: history, fiction, the individual, violence, the Reformation