Wow. As Mr Punch would say, “That’s the way to do it!” Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a magnificent purring beast of a book, seductive, sly and sinuous, slinking through the savage corridors of the court of King Henry the Eighth. Like a Stanley Kubrick film (and he would have loved this novel), you feel right from the outset that you’re in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they’re doing and is completely in control of their material. And even better, more than six hundred pages later, Mantel leaves you wanting more.
All this, and she’s telling one of the best-known stories in the land. Whether it’s David Starkey or The Tudors on television, The Other Boleyn Girl at the movies or the latest book by Alison Weir, the Henry business is booming, and you can’t help approaching Wolf Hall wondering if it’s going to feel a little over-familiar. But Mantel has a ferocious sense of purpose, and an injustice to be righted: in this story Thomas Cromwell is the hero and the saintly Thomas More his foe. More, of course, is generally presented as an angel, the honest man who died for his beliefs. And frankly, once you’ve been played by Paul Scofield (in Fred Zinneman’s A Man For All Seasons) you’ve got an unfair advantage. Cromwell, on the other hand, is often seen as Henry’s thug: the blacksmith’s son who rose to power through expedience, bombast and physical threat. Here, however, the tables are turned, and Cromwell placed right at the centre: this is his story, beginning, in the novel’s opening paragraph, with a violent father, and small expectations for his life:
‘So now get up.’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
Blood from the gash in his head — which was his father’s first effort — is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather,and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut …
I’ll miss my dog, he thinks.
The great virtues of the novel are here: the urgent, journalistic present tense; the tight control of focus, visual, intellectual and emotional; and the precise attention to detail — that unravelling boot — that brings the past to life without ever screaming “look at my research!”. As the story develops, and Cromwell grows up — there’s no extended childhood, just a jump cut to his adult life — Mantel adds warmth and wit and sparkle: this is one of the funniest, as well as most moving, novels of the year. She has also created a spoken language that feels absolutely authentic. Is it accurate? I don’t know, but it does what matters: it feels true. She writes scenes so taut, so loaded and so simple that every screenwriter should read this. Here’s a moment early in the book, in which Cromwell realises his attraction to his sister-in-law, Johane Williamson:
He picks up his candle. He backs out and closes the door. He pinches out the light, turns the lock and gives the key to Johane.
He says to her, “It seems such a long time since there was a baby in the house.”
“Don’t look at me,” Johane says.
He does, of course. He says, “Does John Williamson not do his duty by you these days?”
She says, “His duty is not my pleasure.”
As he walks away he thinks, that’s a conversation I shouldn’t have had.
The heart of the book is King Henry’s desperate search for an heir. Now in his forties, with a queen who’s older than himself, Henry needs a male successor to keep the country united: the question is, at what cost? Cromwell, More, Cardinal Wolsey and, best of all, the creepy, ambitious Boleyns (father and two daughters) are entangled in an endless, intricate succession of plots and counter-plots, each character distinct and vivid in the light of Mantel’s gaze. She delights in the machinations of politics, and there’s enormous glee in the dialogue between Cromwell and his mentor Wolsey, a witty proto-Mandelson who knows the end is near. But there’s a deep and moving sadness too, as Cromwell suffers personal tragedy — well concealed in public behind his “murderer’s face” — and forgoes happiness for power.
Mantel is already working on its sequel, and I’m not sure she should be allowed out until she’s done. Because Wolf Hall is one of those rare novels that’s not so much a book as an enchantment, something that you wake from, slightly startled, and that shimmers in the air of everyday. It makes the world look slightly different, and you long to meet its characters again.