A Man for This Season

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, $27, 560 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Lucy Lethbridge is a freelance writer and former literary editor of the Tablet.