By Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate £18.99, 672 pages
FT Bookshop price: £15.19
Wolf Hall is a fantastically well-wrought, detailed and convincing novel about Henry VIII’s long sweat to convince the world and the Pope that it was right for him to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his second, Anne Boleyn. But despite being a complex examination of the all too familiar shenanigans of power, of favour, and of treachery in the Tudor court, still the rhythms at its wrist-aching, 650-page heart are universal: men, women and children, birth and death.
Especially death. From the first bloody pages, as the young Tom Cromwell is thrashed yet again by his thug of a father, we meet the early 1500s in all their filth and frailty. The end of life is never more than an inch, or a blade, away. For the moment, Cromwell – a convincing study of victim-turned-power-player – is safe. A spell abroad teaches him about art, culture and killing. He lands back on these shores and, finally, is propelled to the king’s court. Distinguished as much by his quiet intelligence, as by the fact that ruthless manipulators (and to some extent even the king) fear him, he rises swiftly to power as Henry’s chief minister, smoothing the way to the king’s much-required second marriage.
There is so much to praise in Wolf Hall, Mantel’s 10th work of fiction, and the follow-up to her Orange-shortlisted novel Beyond Black. Despite its length, the pace is fast. A couple of hundred pages in, you feel as if you might drown in its volume. But you emerge at the end dazed and moved, properly infected by the period. It both is and isn’t an easy read. The five preface pages listing the characters are indispensable. Even so, I can’t honestly claim to have followed every subtle twist of the plot. Mantel is a writer who doesn’t ever spell things out. Mostly this is exhilarating, occasionally it tests you to your limits. I don’t know enough about the real Cromwell to judge how far Mantel’s fictional protagonist sticks to or departs from history’s orthodoxy. But I do know I felt for him – and I began for the first time to grasp the harsh arrangements of the Tudor court, and to understand how it might have felt to grapple with the momentous appetites and insecurities of kings.
But where Mantel really excels is in the small, dark stuff. The dead permeate this novel – certainly Cromwell is most strongly defined by his losses. The sudden death of his wife from fever is touchingly predicted that morning when, going downstairs, he imagines he glimpses “the flash of her white cap” behind him. Here is a Cromwell who is surprisingly susceptible to intuition, to life’s eerie transience.
His relationships with animals are similarly unexpected and tender. He keeps a succession of small dogs, “always called Bella”. Finding the first Bella on the street, he “carries her home in one hand, and in the other a small cheese wrapped in sage leaves”. Plenty of novelists would write about the dog in one hand. Very few would add the second handful – but that’s precisely what brings the episode to life.
Mantel’s depictions of babies and children are also among the best I’ve come across in recent fiction. A child falls asleep “with the speed with which someone pushed falls off a wall”. Anne Boleyn’s dismaying baby girl, the future Elizabeth I, is unforgettably described as “an ugly purple grizzling knot of womankind”. And then, inevitably, children and death: Cromwell’s daughter Grace dies “in his arms; she dies as easily, as naturally as she was born”. His shocked response as he walks out of the room – “She was already learning Greek” – tells us all we need to know about the agony of losing a child.
But if you want to understand why Mantel – as much as, or possibly more, than any other writer writing today – is a master of her craft, look no further than the scene that, for me anyway, lies at the heart of this book. As a boy, told it would “do him good to see it up close”, Cromwell is encouraged to watch the burning of a “Loller” – a heretic witch or, as Mantel makes chillingly clear here, a defenceless old person. The three or four pages don’t really bear quoting out of context. But, as well as elucidating the emotional development of Cromwell more than any other single detail could, they make appalling reading.
Because somehow, snaked in there among the words that tell you exactly how the old woman is burned, is something else: a suggestion of human evil so thick that, like the smoke coiling off the burnt flesh, it catches at your throat and makes you gasp. Yes, this is it – this is what words can occasionally, at their terrifying best, manage to do. Of course, no one who’s read Mantel’s other work will be at all surprised.
Julie Myerson is the author of ‘The Lost Child’ (Bloomsbury)