Among the protagonists in the pageant of English history, the Tudors are generally painted in lurid colors. In the English popular imagination—influenced by five centuries of drama and fiction—the kings, queens, saints, and schemers of the English Reformation are either heroes or villains, depending on where you stand in the religious debate.

Yet in Wolf Hall, her latest book, the British novelist Hilary Mantel has attempted something quite new with figures that have become as familiar as cartoon cutouts. She has looked inside them to draw out the aspects of the Tudor drama we find most difficult to imagine: the characters’ real motivations, how they loved and worked and talked with each other. The personalities who pass through these pages—Thomas Cranmer, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Richard Riche, Katharine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Desiderius Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, and Reginald Pole—may be broadly familiar; here they are explored as players in a drama whose denouement is known to us.

Wolf Hall, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize, does not read like a historical novel (there is no fictional interior plot within the larger framework of historical events), but as a recreation of interludes from the first years of the Henrician Reformation. Henry VIII is claiming that his marriage to Katharine of Aragon is invalid; the Boleyns with their kinsman the Duke of Norfolk are backing the seductive minx Anne Boleyn, with whom the King is infatuated, for queen; the dissolution of the monasteries is just beginning; on the Continent and in Rome, there is support for Katharine; among the ordinary English people, Anne is unpopular but the desire for reform is in the air; Thomas More is Lord Chancellor and holds court at home in Chelsea. Mantel has pried away the skin of the past and reveals bones, feelings, beating hearts—the ordinariness as well as the strangeness of the sixteenth century.

This is not an easy book, and the reader may find the layers of detail challenging. There are long expositions of the knotty tangles of monarchical lineage, and the necessary chronicle of historical events occasionally consumes the novel’s narrative drive. But Mantel has created a compelling sense of atmosphere. Wolf Hall is a triumph of historical empathy and imagination.

Mantel’s most audacious move is to make her central figure Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s runaway son who became the secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, and then Henry VIII’s most trusted henchman. In the Catholic version of history, Cromwell is the ultimate Tudor schemer, the king’s enforcer who lined his pockets with the spoils of monastic dissolution; he is the small-eyed, blank-faced bureaucratic fixer in Holbein’s famous portrait. Mantel’s Cromwell, however, is, as one would expect from so subtle a writer, a character who eludes firm definition. “Adamant, mild, a keeper of the king’s peace” is how Mantel describes him; Cromwell is here kindly, tolerant, a reformer but not a zealot. He is a confidant who never makes the mistake of gossiping himself. He is pragmatic, reasonable, without convictions—tolerant, personally, of the beliefs of others. He is not exactly an agnostic but neither is he burdened by the fear of God; he thinks that most of the time being nice is as important as being good. Above all, he is awesomely competent—and his passage through this life, from poverty to power, is driven by a remarkable talent for making himself indispensable. “Cromwell remembers Wolsey’s lesson: always try to find out what people wear under their clothes. At an earlier stage in life this would have surprised him; he had thought that under their clothes people wore their skin.”

Cromwell is, in short, a thoroughly modern man. And if in Mantel’s Cromwell we see the embodiment of a new age, our own age, his defining opposite must be Thomas More-inhabitant of a thornier medieval world. The More of Wolf Hall is far removed from the sage of A Man for All Seasons (itself a very twentieth-century interpretation of medieval saintliness). He is a vain, cruel, intellectually snobbish, hair-shirt-wearing bully. Mantel contrasts the way More humiliates his wife in public with Cromwell’s joshing equality with his own wife, and More’s daily self-scourgings with Cromwell’s fastidious incredulity at the practice. Early on, Cromwell recognises the beginning of More’s end, and notes “the sense of unraveling weave.” More bleats for compassion in the Tower, and Henry’s new elite remind him of the sadistic way More himself tortured heretics in the past. Mantel is too interesting a novelist not to allow for the contradictory complexity of her characters, but Cromwell and More clearly stand on either side of the divide between the modern and medieval mindsets.

The biggest problem with Mantel’s novel is the way the form itself has been blurred. Wolf Hall is a fiction that is not fictional enough and a chronicle of history that is not close enough to the known facts. We cannot help but ask how the author knows how More or Cromwell treated their wives. Mantel’s More is in many ways a more interesting, troubling figure, if a much less attractive one, than the St. Thomas of Catholic devotion, but he is also squeezed here into the role of Cromwell’s opposite, and more than once I felt that the imaginative liberties to which a novelist is entitled were being abused by Mantel.

Still, what Mantel has achieved here is nothing less than the re-humanizing of the past. She has a wonderful gift for description and her prose is rich (sometimes a little over-rich). Anne Boleyn has “a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes”; Katharine of Aragon, redeemed from passive defeat, is a stout and fiery Spaniard who knows her power: “That wreck of a body, held together by lacing and stays, encloses a voice you can hear as far as Calais.... The windows are rattled from here to Constantinople.” Cardinal Wolsey, a byword for gluttony and avarice, is here more interesting, his greed epicurean rather than gross, and Cromwell marvels at “the cardinal’s wit, his sense of wonder and beauty, his instinct for decorum and pleasure, his finesse.”

Novelists and historians have the privilege of hindsight, and the fate of the historical Cromwell hangs over the last pages of this book with a horrible inevitability. So seasoned a practitioner of realpolitik might have been aware of the dangers of power-broking in the Tudor court, but Mantel’s Cromwell apparently goes about his scheming business in the final pages with no notion of the execution that awaits him after the novel has come to a close. Wolf Hall is a curious work: too burdened by historical research to be entirely satisfying as a novel, the book nonetheless leaves the reader with a lasting savor of the raw violence of the sixteenth century, and in the ambiguous figure of Cromwell, the man without beliefs, a glimpse of the dawning of what we call the modern age.

Lucy Lethbridge is a freelance writer and former literary editor of the Tablet.
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Published in the 2009-10-23 issue: View Contents
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