If any budding dramatists are reading this and would like to see in action an expert blending of political, social and personal history, they will go a long way before seeing a better example of it than in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.
Mantel’s novel doesn’t shrink from the eternal jurisprudential questions: who rules? And where does their authority to do so flow from? All the important dates and major events you might recall from school are here: the break with Rome, Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragorn’s bitter divorce, the ransacking of the monasteries. However, the personal is never neglected: the King and his new Queen are by turns argumentative and affectionate; the grief of losing family members to an epidemic is powerfully realised; and younger characters are as consumed with the same preoccupations for their future careers and romances as today’s school leavers.
This is a time where everyone is fighting for freedom. Henry to free himself from the Pope’s control, the first Protestants for freedom to worship and Tyndale for the freedom to publish the Bible in his own language. There are also the Duke of Norfolk‘s serfs: their lord is prepared to grant their liberty, but only when a price is paid by the King for the loss of their labour.
But then, as now, England is broke. Surrounded by hostile countries and facing ruinous wars if a male heir can’t be produced to hold the kingdom together. Victories cost money and no one likes paying taxes. Disputes between kings also risk the valuable trade with the merchants of Antwerp and Italy, further depleting the Treasury. And although the printing press is revolutionising Europe, England is still a place where sorcery and fairytales are taken as true.
At the centre of it all is Thomas Cromwell: fixer, lawyer, former soldier and textile merchant but, crucially, not a gentleman. He is more upwardly mobile than any City yuppie but, like them, never allowed to forget his roots. Power stems from birth and patronage and to be ‘in trade’ is to be valued not much higher than the serfs. The battle of wills between Thomas More and Cromwell is given a powerfully human dimension, shown to be two competing intellects, both convinced of their absolute superiority to the other. The consequences for ordinary English people, many of whom will go to a fiery stake over that battle of wills, are rendered in tragic, and occasionally gory, detail.
Wolf Hall is a book of stunning ambition. The cast of characters and the world of the court are conveyed in breath-taking detail, but deftly, so that it never feels as if Mantel is beating you over the head with facts as your history teacher perhaps did. Instead, she almost makes you feel sorry for poor Henry, having to deal with his many troubles when he would rather be bedding the Boleyn sisters, jousting and hunting. It comes across as a rough deal being king, with one eye on the future succession and the other on your illustrious forebears, lest you disgrace Tudor honour. Cromwell appears as a more sympathetic, rounded and reasoned character than he has been given credit for by other writers, still with the looks ‘of a murderer’, but one you are happy to spend 600 pages in the company of.
It is testament to the power of Hilary Mantel’s writing in Wolf Hall that on finishing the book you feel both bereft and eager for more. A second volume is promised and all I can gushingly say is, more power to her elbow, I can’t wait to read it.