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Clever Cromwell and King Henry

The statesman and the monarch on the make animate a massive novel about a dramatic era.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

By Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt. 532 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Karen Heller

Hilary Mantel's

Wolf Hall,

winner of this year's Man Booker Prize, is a massive historical novel, a world unto its own. There are 97

dramatis personae

, half of whom appear to be named Thomas - Wolsey, More, Howard, Boleyn, and the hero of this story, Thomas Cromwell - and the doorstopper spans all of eight years.

But what an eight years! From 1527 to 1535, we're in the thick of Henry VIII's grasp for entrenched power, hurtling England into modernity, separating from Rome and Europe, transferring control from nobility and monasteries to crown, beginning to build Empire, Church and that warren of wives, with Katherine of Aragon falling and Anne Boleyn rising, all for a son, a legacy and to stave off the Yorkist claimants. The monarch is about making money and building power, not simply snuggling into an inheritance or churchly right.

Cromwell, the son of a thug blacksmith and brewer, the ultimate self-made grandee at a time when this seemed heresy, is the principal architect of Henry's grasp for greatness. He's a calmer, smarter man, too. Mantel's book stands as a resounding rebuttal to Thomas Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, play and movie, which made a saint of Thomas More at the expense of other counselors at court, notably Cromwell, reduced to a villanous sneer.

Mantel's Cromwell is the very essence of a modern man, reasoned, intellectually curious, rational instead of viscerally reactive, yet capable of great sensitivity, especially to family, perhaps a reaction to his horrid youth.

"He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that's ensnared you for three generations, or talk your sniffling little daughter into the marriage she swears she will never make. With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy, but he makes your creditors weep."

The king is complex, too, becoming clearer to the reader as Cromwell grows in power and proximity. Appearances, as well as heritage, are deceptive. "Try always, the cardinal says, to learn what people wear under their clothes, for it's not just their skin. Turn the king inside out, and you will find his scaly ancestors: his warm, solid, serpentine flesh."

In Cromwell's quest for authority, and wealth - his home, Austin Friars, becomes grander and more populated by the season - he must ally himself with that smallest, and most cunning of court operatives, Anne Boleyn. "Her bones are so delicate, her waist so narrow; if two law students make one cardinal, two Annes make one Katherine," Mantel writes. "She is not a carnal being, she is a calculating being with a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry eyes." Unlike her sister, the king's former mistress, Anne withholds what Henry wishes most.

Cromwell, deemed "the cleverest man in England" once Wolsey is dead, has plans, all tied to slender Anne. "If Henry lives twenty years, Henry who is Wolsey's creation, and then leaves this child to succeed him, I can build my own prince: to the glorification of God and the commonwealth."

Most readers know the outcome of these entanglements - for Anne, no good will come except the remarkable daughter she will never know. Mantel's gift is to breathe fresh air into the musty chambers. The novel is composed in the present tense, and with all the immediacy of contemporary plotting. Consequently, the court is ruled by intrigue and politics and sex (or the withholding of it), the quest for enduring power, not the pompous folderol and hazy remove.

Mantel's very title, Wolf Hall, is filled with portent, for it's not the name of Cromwell's home, the scheming Anne's, or any of the monarch's many residences, but that of Jane Seymour, the meek lady-in-waiting who has no idea of the fate that awaits her.

This tremendous, thundering book ends in 1535. The last line - "Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall." - gives away everything and nothing. It is the beginning of Anne's end, Jane's brief glory, and the second half of Cromwell's extraordinary decade of power.

Fortunately for us all, Mantel is busy on Wolf Hall's sequel.