Dreams of freedom

Dreams of freedom

Man Booker Prize

Dreams of freedom

What is it about hearty, heartless Henry VIII that, five centuries on, scriptwriters and novelists still buzz about him like wasps around jam? The fascination is not confined to Anne Boleyn’s heaving bosom, whatever Philippa Gregory might have you think. Nor is it simply the glittering dramatic possibilities of period betrayal and bloodshed: those starched ruffs, that retinue of doomed wives.

Henry’s reign continues to draw us because it is the moment that the past comes into focus and becomes recognisably our own. The problems of Tudor Britain — social mobility, religious freedom, the ongoing tussle between individual, church and state — have not been resolved with the passing of the years. Henry’s sexually motivated struggle to wrest his country away from the Catholic church can be seen as the origin story of our own age, the moment that England broke free from Rome and began to worship and think in its native tongue.

It’s a story, then, about power. As such, it is no coincidence that this brutal, sophisticated era has attracted the attentions of Hilary Mantel, whose over-arching theme has always been the battle between the weak and the strong.

Over two decades, she has gained a reputation as an elegant anatomiser of malevolence and cruelty. From the French Revolution of A Place of Greater Safety (1992) to the Middle England of Beyond Black (2005), hers are scrupulously moral — and scrupulously unmoralistic — books that refuse to shy away from the underside of life, finding even in disaster a kind of bleak and unconsoling humour. It is that supple movement between laughter and horror that makes this rich pageant of Tudor life her most humane and bewitching novel.

Though set in Henry’s court and, overwhelmingly, about his long, panting battle to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Wolf Hall is really the story of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s boy who became the king’s right-hand man. When we first meet Thomas, he is sprawled on the floor, bloody and beaten. His father, drunken Walter, has just put the boot in and not for the first time. “Inch by inch forward,” he orders himself, as he crawls, spewing and fainting, resolutely out of the life he was born to.

Inch by inch forward proves a brilliant strategy. The next time this battered stripling is seen, he is the groomed and dazzlingly competent lawyer of the king’s chief adviser: Cardinal Wolsey, the de facto ruler of England. It’s quite a leap for a boy who doesn’t even know his own birthday, and it’s not the only one that Cromwell will make in his vertiginous life. Mantel has always been obsessed by the capriciousness of fortune and in a novel full of bounds and tumbles, she provides a masterclass in the tragic arc of ascent and decline.

This is a burstingly large book, so densely peopled that the cast-list alone takes up five pages. Much of Cromwell’s past is told in flashbacks — somnolent, slippery sequences that add to the novel’s dreamlike sense. For all her meticulous historical reconstruction, Mantel’s world remains a strange place, permeated by the many dead. None the less, it is both linguistically and sensually vital, stacked with images and phrases that linger in the mind.

If the dance between king and mistress is expertly choreographed, it is Mantel’s presentation of the common realm — the seething streets of Putney and Wimbledon, populated by drapers and boatmen — that gives this novel the force of revelation. The backdrop to the king’s quest for sexual liberation is the daily horror of London life. The church protects its interests by murdering dissenters; reading the Bible in English is a crime punishable by death. This is what lies behind Henry’s struggle with the Pope.

By centring her narrative on the humane and free-thinking Thomas Cromwell, who believes in kindness, tolerance and education, Mantel has found a way to reconfigure the tired tale of Henry’s lust and what it led to. Henry might want a son so desperately that he is willing to make war with the Pope, but Cromwell, who dreams of a nation that can talk and learn and worship freely, is revealed as the true author of England’s independence.

But though this tattered yarn has been spectacularly rewoven, the problem Mantel has is that every reader knows how it ends — with Anne beheaded and Henry reeling to the altar four times more. Her solution is to stop abruptly, almost flatly, with a gesture toward the future and all that the future holds.

It’s a risky thing to do and the danger is a lurching sense of anticlimax. But it lets Mantel attempt something truly original. By ending without a dramatic resolution, she allows the “what happened next” of the historical record to underscore her central, sobering message: that human kindness and idealism are no match for the fickleness of fortune.

In our last glimpse of him, Cromwell’s ascendancy endures. In the unwritten coda to the story, though, he, too, must tumble. After brokering two more royal weddings and overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries, Cromwell was executed by Henry in 1540 for failing to provide a suitable bride. His boiled head was left on a spike on London Bridge, turned emphatically away from the city he loved.

Not a word of this is mentioned in Wolf Hall. It is, none the less, the tragedy it ends with: the last lesson in a thrilling, disquieting sermon of what ignorance and caprice can wreak. This is a beautiful and profoundly humane book, a dark mirror held up to our own world.

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate, 2009, pp 650, £18.99