Fourth Estate, 653pp, [pounds sterling]18.99
Historical novels set in 16th-century England--especially accounts of the marital woes of Henry VIII--usually follow a Hollywood-friendly template of heaving bodices, well-filled hose and pointy-bearded intriguers. In the hands of Hilary Mantel, Tudor kitsch becomes something darker and less digestible. Wolf Hall takes a forensic slice through a nation caught between feudalism and capitalism, the Middle Ages and modernity, Catholicism and the revolutionary doctrines emerging from the Continent. Memories of the disastrous dynastic wars of the previous century are still fresh, and fears of another are growing. As there is little national, so there is no personal, security: noble and commoner alike are only ever a step away from their legal transformation into a mangled corpse or a smouldering residue of "mud, grease, charred bone".
Mantel's hero for this age of uncertainty is Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son who rose to one of the highest offices of the land before fatally offending Henry himself. The novel, largely set from 1527 onwards, traces the crest of his career--his elevation from trusted servant of Cardinal Wolsey to the cardinal's own position as Henry's most loyal servant. Cromwell, whose reputation as a villainous schemer was cemented in A Man for All Seasons, seems a perverse choice of hero. But this Cromwell is resolutely modern: a lawyer, accountant, merchant, arbitrator and inventive provider of what would now be called financial services. In the midst of superstition, corruption and brutality, he is a champion of reason and--unlike other, less scrupulous members of the nobility--of the rule of law. Mantel also turns his rival Thomas More's reputation on its head; he is less a saint than a sneering fanatic who bullies his wife and courts his own execution.
Much of Cromwell's polish is acquired in the service of Wolsey, an irresistible figure, "like a great leopard", comfortable, charming and humane, who will "burn books, but not men". The cardinal's fall from favour in 1529 thrusts Cromwell into a court consumed by manoeuvring to extricate Henry from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and England from its duty of obedience to the pope. WolfHall gives an intricate but absorbing account of the tussle between the vested interests around the jilted queen and the rising favourite, Anne Boleyn, led by Anne's uncle the Duke of Norfolk. The verbal fencing of court life plays to Mantel's own biting humour: Boleyn, "a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes", develops a reluctant respect for Cromwell when he replies: "You may be, I hardly know you," to her sarcastic suggestion that she is "a simple person".
Mantel's last novel, Beyond Black, was a dark comedy about mediums and spiritualism, and Wolf Hall's characters are similarly prey to charlatanry and obfuscation. …