2009's Man Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, is now available in paperback. The nearly universally praised historical novel is set in sixteenth century Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII. Ripe for fiction, it is a period fraught with political upheaval, religious turmoil, and sexual intrigue, and at the center of it all for a long period was the protagonist of Mantel's novel, Henry's oft vilified political advisor, Thomas Cromwell. Not only is he the central figure in the book, it is through his eyes that the events of the novel are described.
If, however, what you know about Cromwell comes from something like Robert Bolt's popular 1960 play, A Man For All Seasons or even Showtime's recent series, The Tudors, you are in for a big surprise. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell, is not only the central figure, he is an out and out heroic figure. This is not a case of a villain hero, an ironic characterization that the reader is supposed to see through. It is not a case of something akin to Milton's presumably accidental heroic portrait of Satan in Paradise Lost or Robert Browning's defenses of the indefensible in some of his dramatic monologues. It is not even a case of mistaken sympathy for an unreliable first person narrator. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell is a good person, probably much maligned by history.
In a 2009 Guardian Books Podcast, she says as much. Wolf Hall is intended as revisionist history. It is at least in part as much an attempt to rehabilitate Cromwell's reputation as it is to tell a good story. This Cromwell is loyal. He starts in politics as a legal aide to Henry's first political aide, Cardinal Wolsey, and remains faithful to him even when he is toppled from power. He is compassionate; he tries to make Princess Mary's situation more bearable when she is separated from Katherine at Anne Boleyn's insistence. Indeed, he is always going out of his way to help even his enemies. He is generous; he takes in orphans and feeds the poor. He is good company, even those like the Emperor's ambassador who are political opponents, speak well of him.