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.
Wolf Hall 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. Wolsey advises his protégé to “find out what people wear under their clothes”: discoveries that invariably reflect the cruelties and superstitions of the age. The Duke of Norfolk rattles when he moves because of scores of concealed holy medals and relics, More “wears a jerkin of horsehair”, and after Wolsey’s death in 1530, his servant finds another such instrument of mortification beneath the cardinal’s sumptuous robes – a horsehair belt.
Thomas Cromwell finds all this alternately sad and ridiculous. Mantel garlands him with enlightened virtues, some of which verge on the anachronistic: he loves dogs, is a Europhile with a taste for torta di funghi, and observes to Henry that overhunting has wiped out England’s bears, wolves and wild boar. He is a kind husband, father and patron to a large household, as well as a freethinker who keeps a pirated edition of Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible.
Even when he loses his wife and children to disease, he refuses to take comfort in cant: “It’s not the hand of God kills our children. It’s disease and hunger and war, rat-bites and bad air and the miasma from plague pits.” All this might be a bit much, were he not also something of a bruiser: Wolsey says he looks “like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs low men tow about on ropes”.
Mantel’s prose, like her hero, is witty and tough-minded. “That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes,” Cromwell tells Henry when the outraged king demands if he should “cower” at home rather than go to war.
The dialogue slips between English, Latin, Spanish, French, Flemish, Greek and the slang of Putney boatmen; Cromwell, as a professional middleman and polyglot, must make sense of a world awash with new words and ideas. “I am always translating,” he thinks, “if not language to language, then person to person.” (Thomas More, by contrast, “would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you”.)
The novel ends abruptly in 1535, bitten off before the events that loom over its pages: Boleyn’s execution and Cromwell’s own downfall at the hands of her uncle. “It is time to say what England is . . . It is time to say what a king is,” Cromwell resolves, in the upheaval over Henry’s remarriage.
He may not be a romantic hero, but Wolf Hall’s lawyer is, for a short while at least, the man for changing times.
Fourth Estate, 653pp, £18.99