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The benefit of the doubt

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, pp.653, 18.99

With her brilliant new book, Hilary Mantel has not just written a rich, absorbingly readable historical novel; she has made a significant shift in the way any of her readers interested in English history will henceforward think about Thomas Cromwell, the man at the heart of what the historian Geoffrey Elton, who first put him on the map 50 years ago, called the Tudor revolution in government. To activate what she has called her ‘informed imagination’, she has read widely and deeply in the literature of the period and then let all her extraordinary talent as a writer of fiction rip. Her book is as true to the facts as she could make it, but just as true to her novelist’s gift for empathy and emotional insight.

The story starts violently, with a boy living near the Thames in Putney in 1500 being beaten half to death by his brutal blacksmith father. Mantel’s Tudor England is strong meat, reeking with blood and guts and filth, and her Cromwell, having escaped across the Channel, fights in France, travels in Italy, learns the wool trade and several languages, and grows into a man no one would want as an enemy. In the novel, as in the contemporary record, he reappears in England as a lawyer and prosperous man of business, living in the city of London with a wife and three small children as the righthand man of the greatest prelate in the land, Henry VIII’s own righthand man, Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel’s Cromwell, like Elton’s, is tough and ruthlessly effective. David Starkey, who, like other historians of the period, admires her handling of the sources, has called her version Alastair Campbell with an axe.


One of the ways Mantel manages to make a well-known story new is by eschewing chronological narrative. She creates immediacy by using the present tense, and a sense of intimacy with the characters through dialogue. She gives their language period touches, but never falls into pastiche. The pieces of the jigsaw may be familiar, but she shuffles them around so that the full picture emerges only gradually, in bright fragments. When we meet Wolsey, he is already paying the price for failing to get the King what he wants most: a divorce from Katharine of Aragon so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell and Wolsey respect each other, and Mantel brings warmth and tenderness to their relationship, described in a series of flashbacks, as Cromwell, whose loyalty was never in doubt, tries to protect him from the courtiers and grandees who loathe them both and sneer at their origins, as the sons of a blacksmith and a butcher. After Wolsey’s fall, Cromwell takes his place as the King’s counsellor and fixer. Now it is up to him to get Henry what he wants.

Above all, Mantel works against preconceptions. Her Henry VIII is not a tyrannical monster and lecher, but a bemused man past his golden youth, full of guilt and desperate for a son. Anne Boleyn is no romantic victim in the making but a sly, cock-teasing girl determined to be Queen, ‘a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes’. Cromwell’s sympathies are with the bullied, obdurate Katharine and her humiliated daughter Mary, and also with Anne’s fair-haired sister, another Mary, whom Cromwell rather fancies for himself. Mantel evokes them all with a light, confident touch, anchoring them to reality with descriptions of their world as precise as stitches in a tapestry, of the light over the river, the texture of scarlet cloth, the song of a bird or the smell of crushed rosemary in a nosegay.

Her main achievement, though, is to rehabilitate Thomas Cromwell by making him human. Biographers, for the most part, rely on personal material, the more the better. A novelist like Mantel benefits greatly when such material is sparse. Historians have long recognised that while the official record of Cromwell’s later career is dense, his private life remains hidden. This absence allows Mantel’s informed imagination great freedom, and she makes the most of it. Her Cromwell is a man who adores his wife and daughters, weeps when the plague takes them from him, worries about his frivolous son, likes to chat to his cook, and has a series of dogs called Bella, named for the one happy memory from his loveless childhood. He is also a rational man who deplores religious fanaticism and the burning of heretics, unlike his contemporary and rival Thomas More, whom Mantel presents as a scruffy, self-deluded misogynist rather than a saintly man of conscience. Her picture of More is just as true to the record as the more flattering A Man for All Seasons version. Biographers, let alone playwrights, can be just as selective as novelists.

Mantel ends this book inconclusively, with More’s execution and Cromwell riding high. We all know, at least in outline, what happens next, and she has already given us glimpses of several of the characters she will be bringing out of the shadows in the sequel she is writing now, like Mark Smeaton, the musician who will be crucial to Anne Boleyn’s downfall, and quiet little Jane Seymour (who lives at Wolf Hall). Mantel makes us think again about what we assume we know: ‘Beneath every history, another history’, she says and this powerful, subtle book illuminates her point. There is historical truth, and there is imaginative truth. Hilary Mantel, who has never written better than in this book, respects both.


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