Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

11/10/09, Mail Today

Why has ‘historical fiction’ become such a dirty term despite the superlative efforts of some of the finest English-language writers – A.S. Byatt, Barry Unsworth, Thomas Keneally, Rose Tremain, Michael Cunningham, to name just a handful? The bestseller appropriation of the genre – books by Philippa Gregory, for example, or egregiously erroneous Hollywood films – has set the damaging template for the general notion of historical fiction. It happens to be a fearful yet palate-tickling melange of costume drama, exotica, hectic pouring out of undigested research, anachronism, otherness tourism and that most dreaded thing of all – ye-olde-worlde-ese, dialogue studded with ‘prithee’ and ‘zounds’ and ‘hark’. The pages reek of the library, of bad faith and cheating. The general readership gobbles them up. Historical fiction gets stultified in malpractice.

Hilary Mantel tears up this faux-rulebook with unrestrained and scintillatingly intelligent glee in her eleventh novel, Wolf Hall. I cannot imagine any writer putting in one of her Tudor characters’ mouths the Friends-inflected sentence, ‘Anne Boleyn is so a witch’, immediately creating a dance of balance between the past and the present, between what is recoverable and what is imagined. Coming exactly forty years after John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the crucially important anti-historical novel that dismantled the inevitable collusion between literary-fictional narrative and the Marxist notion of history as grand récit, Wolf Hall is not historical fiction as it is understood now.

Yet it is not this wholesale redrawing of the boundaries of what historical fiction should be that makes Wolf Hall such a towering masterpiece. It is in the incandescently imagined – I can’t stress this word enough – inhabitation of the Tudor world, both internal and external, that the novel is truly startling. It is about Thomas Cromwell, credited by the great Tudor historian, G.R. Elton, as having invented bureaucracy, made administration and government effective and efficient, in short, modernised the Tudor state machinery under Henry VIII, England’s most colourful and readily-identified monarch. Cromwell was also the engineer and enforcer of the English Reformation at a time when the tussle between Rome and Protestantism was intense, dangerous and fissile. He extracted Henry from his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon and effected his second with Anne Boleyn, two acts that were to change the history of Europe. He effectively ran the country from the late 1520s for a decade. For someone who rose on the back of Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from grace – Cromwell was Wolsey’s right-hand man – and who, moreover, was not born a gentleman, something the extremely powerful faction of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (Anne Boleyn’s uncle), never let him forget, this was an unimaginable elevation to power.

And it is, first and foremost, a novel about power. The court of any Renaissance prince, early modern England’s being no exception, was a slippery, ever-changing escarpment; you really had to watch your foothold there. Part of the joy in reading this book is witnessing how Cromwell negotiates this vertiginously treacherous terrain to become indispensable to Henry. And part of the pleasure is watching all the Great Events of history – the Act of Supremacy, Thomas More’s execution (with which the book ends), the break with Rome, the thorny issue of succession – made intimate as private moments of chit-chat. Renaissance realpolitik is recalibrated as backroom gossip, a series of ante-chamber tête-à-tête. Allied with the fleet-footed present-tense narration, this tactic dissolves any sense of the foreignness of the past and makes it hot and urgent like a word whispered in your ear.

How has Mantel achieved this immediacy? For someone who has left behind such an enormous sea of official documents, Cromwell the man is shadowy and elusive, conspicuous by the absences and lacunae in the records. Comparatively little is known about his private life as opposed to the plenitude about, say, his rival and enemy, Thomas More. It is here that the novelist steps in and animates the dead puppet of history into something so miraculously alive and electric that it takes your breath away. The dominating narrative point of view and consciousness in the novel is Cromwell’s and to give us unique access to the theatre of his mind Mantel marries Henry James’s free indirect style to something close to a stream of consciousness, creating a subjectivity that is deep, interior, and always convincing, yet always retaining a core of privacy and unknowability. The book belongs so much to Cromwell that Mantel claims almost exclusively for him the use of the third person impersonal pronoun ‘he’, so much so that she sheds the convention of tagging the ‘he’ with the proper noun; the reading experience that results is slightly, deliciously awry. Its 650 pages are delivered in a gorgeous weave of a style that is witty, acerbic, at times hilarious, always original and deeply intelligent. Wolf Hall is a watershed in English writing.