There are so many extraordinary things about Hilary Mantel’s writing, it’s hard to know where to begin. But I think what she possesses, pre-eminently, is a capacity for range and risk. She can do you biting satire, she can do you plain and stylish bildungsroman, she can offer you the crazy and the strange and the deadpan. But here, as with A Place Of Greater Safety (her first novel to be conceived, although the fifth to be published), she offers you sweep, and something like pageant, although she is always looking behind the scenes. Here – in what is the first of two novels – she takes on the subject of Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey’s commoner trusty, who went on to be the pivotal figure in the slightly disturbed court of Henry VIII.
Wolf Hall, apart from flashes from Cromwell’s childhood at the outset, is set between 1527 and 1535, in which Wolsey’s fall from grace, and the establishment of Henry as the head of the Anglican church, accepting no fealty to the papacy, took place. The handling of Henry’s ‘divorce’ from Katherine of Aragon, and his new marriage to Anne Boleyn, were Cromwell’s careful work. Mantel presents Cromwell as a quietly driven man, immune to the pride of the aristos with whom he dealt, a family man, but also an obsessive, a man who dedicated himself to setting the national finances in order.
Although it is a long novel, it is not in any way a sprawling novel. It is intensely and densely focused on Cromwell, and managing in a stylistically risky way to seem to see him from within and without at the same time. Mantel breaks all kinds of ‘rules’ about point of view, about tense, and is also (as ever) beautifully innovative with her use of punctuation. (I once had a student who spotted that a short extract from a novel was by her, simply by the way the semi-colons were used.) But it works. There is a strong sense, as a reader, of being born inside Cromwell’s body, and gradually, very gradually coming to inhabit his head. At the same time, Mantel handles a colossal cast with ease: pretty well the hardest trick for a novelist to pull off. When you reach the end of the tense 650 pages, you have a great gallery of minor characters in your head: the painter, Holbein; the elderly archbishop, Warham; the French emperor’s ambassador, Chapuys. It is as if a painter with a grand commission found time and space to add in a sequence of miniatures.
That we read the court through the consciousness of Cromwell, who is methodical and decisive, but patient, means that we are anchored. The narrative of Henry’s rather fey, and alternatively sentimental and brutal personality, is a sort of shadowplay, a world in which we sense Cromwell is increasingly the puppet-master, almost despite himself. The design of the whole novel, switching without effort from Thomas Cromwell’s affectionate home-life to the controversies of the court, is a piece of genius, really. And it is overlaid, or shot through, with Mantel’s astonishing gift for images, for arresting turns of phrase. She is quite ruthless in her depiction of Anne Boleyn – it struck me incidentally that swift and popular history always manages to treat Boleyn as if she were a teenager (confusing her perhaps witb Lady Jane Grey). Wolf Hall captures the sheer wilfulness that Boleyn must have possessed to supplant a queen: the caprice and the sometimes unpleasant cool she must have possessed.
It does not really matter if Mantel wins the Booker Prize. Wolf Hall will be remembered long after the competition has been forgotten, for the way it muscles in on the English language, and sifts through the images and debates of a strange and defining decade.