Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London: Fourth Estate, 2010), 653pp
It is the sign of any great book that when you finish it you want more. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is, therefore, a great book, and it is even more remarkable that I was hungry for more when you consider that the book is a sizeable 650 pages long. It does take a while to get going, but when it does it doesn't stop - this hefty tome is a real page-turner.
Mantel writes in one of those 'interview with the author' segments included at the end of the book that the danger with historical fiction is that it can often fall short as both literature and history. Mantel, remarkably, does not fail at either. As literature, it has rich prose and complex, fully-realised characters, even though, like many readers, I found the author's persistent use of 'he' - meaning Cromwell - to be rather confusing. As history too, it is thrilling. This is a story that many think they already know - Henry VIII and his six wives, the break from Rome, etc. - but you will be surprised at just how exciting and fresh it is, and how Mantel can flesh out the well-known narrative with details that further enrich the novel. Mantel writes in the end interview that the character Thomas Cromwell is "one of those rare people who can both grasp the big picture and nail down the details". I would suggest that Mantel is one of those rare authors who can also grasp both.
The 'big picture' of the novel is undoubtedly the English Reformation, when King Henry's court stood up to the monopolisation of power from Rome. (I would urge one to read Christopher Hitchens' fantastic review of Wolf Hall from 2010 which discussed the Reformation - it is available here). The persistent theme of the corruption and monopolisation of the established Church is a fascinating one, and there is a tangible and exciting sense in the novel that England is just beginning to get a sense of its own potential power. Wolf Hall is an important document and dramatisation of one of the most seismic upheavals in British history and, indeed, human freedom from the shackles of established self-serving religion. It is also a thrillingly subversive one, which still retains relevance today for those who unquestioningly follow organised religion and dogma. "Show me where it says, in the Bible, 'Purgatory', Cromwell asks himself as early as page 39. "Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says 'Pope'." Regardless of whether one believes in a God, religion is man-made.
Indeed, it is the revisionist characterisation of Thomas Cromwell as a 'hero' of sorts which makes Mantel's work so important. Traditionally, Cromwell is depicted as a villainous schemer and the sainted Thomas More as a honourable martyr. Mantel shows us the other side, where More is (rightly) depicted as a nasty, dogmatic man far too willing to defer to religious orthodoxy, and Cromwell is refreshingly depicted as a free-thinking reformer who hauled himself up by his bootstraps from plebeian origins to become the King's formidable right-hand man. "Never play any game with [Cromwell]," King Henry half-jokingly warns some French guests on page 407. "For he will not respect your ancestry. He has no coat of arms and no name, but he believes he is bred to win." It is not just these two characters who Mantel brings to life. Her nuanced Henry VIII transcends the modern caricature of the gluttonous tyrant with the six wives, presenting us an astute, if insecure, monarch who presided over, as stated above, one of the most important political revolutions in British history. One also gets a distinctly Yoko Ono type vibe from her Anne Boleyn, and every member of Henry's court is similarly given appropriate and fitting characterisation.
Beyond the big picture, Mantel feeds us the 'details' of the political machinations of Henry's court. The dialogue in such scenes is delicious, as Cromwell consistently proves himself more cunning and Machiavellian than any of his political opponents ("my husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money." - pg. 605). Even for those who are uninterested in the larger Reformation narrative, the cut-and-thrust world of sex and politics in Henry's court is gripping; it is not for nothing that Mantel has described the Tudors as our 'great national soap opera'. What Mantel has done is elevated this intriguing soap opera to the highest limits of what historical fiction can achieve.
"It is not the stars that make us, Dr Butts, it is circumstance and necessità, the choices we make under pressure; our virtues make us, but virtues are not enough, we must deploy our vices at times." (pg. 494).