Hillary Mantel, who has tackled subjects as diverse as the French Revolution in "A Place of Greater Safety" (1995) to her own dysfunctional past in "Giving Up the Ghost" (2003), is an ideal choice for a project of such breathtaking scale. Henry VIII's was a quicksilver monarchy, underscored by the fact of his six wives in rather quick succession. Henry is routinely portrayed as the lascivious royal who, in his quest to get a male heir, went to war with the pope — a definitive break that led to the separation of the English Church from Rome.
Setting out to capture the nub of this era, Ms. Mantel has done something outstanding — she has achieved a genuine voice for the time. And that voice tells us the life of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's boy who grew up to become Henry's chief minister. Born into humble and violent beginnings (in the book's first scene, a young Thomas is beaten to a pulp by his drunk father), Cromwell came to rule England by proxy, such was his power.
Ms. Mantel shifts her narration back and forth in time, so that we never learn the correct chronology of events, and this may create problems for a reader who is not in the know. Henry divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she was unable to give him a male heir. He then married one Anne Boleyn, who was also incapable of fulfilling that particular wish. Henry would go on to marry four more times.
Irrespective of the need to know this background to appreciate "Wolf Hall," the story of Cromwell's rise shimmers in Ms. Mantel's spry, intelligent prose. By the book's second scene, for instance, Cromwell has morphed from the gangly abused youngster to the slick lawyer for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's confidant who later fell out with him over his failure to get Henry's marriage to Catherine annulled. The relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey is that of hunter and prey. Initially a leonine figure wielding absolute power, Wolsey loses everything, including his life, to Cromwell, who uses the opportunity to endear himself to Henry.
It is in capturing such twists and turns of fate — so common to the Tudors — that Ms. Mantel shines. She leaches out the bones of the story as it is traditionally known, and presents to us a phantasmagoric extravaganza of the characters' plans and ploys, toils and tactics. There is rich dialogue here, removed from its datedness and assigned a very contemporary charge.
Beyond this, however, there is also a certain aim to Ms. Mantel's art. Regardless of the reasons behind the drift, Ms. Mantel is, and makes her reader be, appreciative of the English break from papal authority. England under Henry VIII is grateful for finally having its own church and being allowed to read the Bible in English. And by keeping Cromwell at the center of the drama, Ms. Mantel celebrates the intelligence and generosity of spirit too often denied Cromwell (most notably in Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons").
Such is the vastness of Ms. Mantel's project that there is the fear at some points that she will not be able to pull it off. The novel, after flitting from one mise en scène to the next, abruptly closes on Cromwell planning a trip to Wolf Hall to arrange an alliance between Henry and Jane Seymour, his third wife who will finally yield the dynasty a male heir — Edward VI. Is Ms. Mantel pointing us to a possible sequel?
Be that as it may, the crackling energy of her narration, the eternal spark of her subject, and her assiduous determination to rescue the reputation of Thomas Cromwell — all these make "Wolf Hall" quite perfect an enterprise by itself.
This review appeared in Washington Times. "Wolf Hall" has been shortlisted for this year's Booker. Read more about the Booker Prize by clicking on the "Booker" tag below this post.