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Book Review

The Tudors' Finest Portraitist

OLIVIA LAING applauds Hilary Mantel's dazzling recreation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's marriage fixer

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.

It's a story 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.

The first to topple is the cardinal. Wolsey is initially encountered at the peak of his powers, a leopard of a man, clad in scarlet so fine he likes to be priced by the yard. The problem that besets him and that propels the book into motion is that Henry's marriage to Catherine has failed to produce the vital heir. Henry's analysis is simple: Catherine was his dead brother's wife, and Leviticus plainly states that if one marries one's brother's relict, one shall not breed. Unfortunately for the cardinal and all who must do the king's bidding, that's not the scripture the Church of Rome ordains. On such subtleties does history swing.

The real Thomas Cromwell stares out of a portrait by Holbein, stern, venal and implacable. But the joy of a historical novel is that it chivvies the dead into dancing life, revealing the humanity that has flaked away from the official record. With her magpie's eye for the telling detail, Mantel is an adept resurrectionist. Even the curses ring true: "God's Blood" or "By the Mass". The court is a glittering chamber of horrors, presided over by the Machiavellian Anne Boleyn, "a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes".

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. Even Wolsey burns books, but Thomas More, the hair-shirted lord chancellor, burns men. (In many ways, Wolf Hall is a riposte to Robert Bolt's acclaimed 1960s play A Man For All Seasons, which casts More as saint and Cromwell as sinner.)

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. And the fact that its conclusion takes place after the curtain has fallen only proves that Hilary Mantel is one of our bravest as well as most brilliant writers.

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