Cromwell, a man for our season

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King is the author of many books, including "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" and "Ex-Libris: A Novel."

Wolf Hall

A Novel

Hilary Mantel

John Macrae Book/Henry Holt: 538 pp., $27


These days, Thomas Cromwell is probably best known through James Frain’s portrayal of him in the popular Showtime series “The Tudors”: a brooding, black-clad figure in a popped collar who engineers Henry VIII’s marriages and dissolves the monasteries before his career ends in one of the series’ most horrifically unforgettable scenes.

This shrewd political fixer is the protagonist -- though in a completely different guise -- in Hilary Mantel’s ambitious new novel, “Wolf Hall,” which was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize for fiction earlier this week. At its core, her story is familiar enough. Henry VIII breaks with Rome so he can annul his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, who has failed to produce a male heir, and marry Anne Boleyn, whom he hopes will. Sir Thomas More refuses to swear an oath recognizing Henry as head of the Church of England and Anne as his queen. His reward -- that of all those who thwart Henry -- is a date with the executioner.

Mantel’s version of these events is far more subtle and intricate than anything imagined by the writers of “The Tudors.” She is at her best when turning her penetrating novelistic gaze to history, as she’s done previously in “A Place of Greater Safety” (1993) and “The Giant, O’Brien” (1998). The former novel filtered the disorder of the French Revolution through the complex motives and desires of its group of protagonists. In “Wolf Hall,” likewise, the English Reformation is the chaotic and convoluted outcome of multiple and competing interests. There is little idealism or heroism here -- just self-serving diplomatic games, verbal jousts, petty quarrels and endless jockeying for position.


Mantel’s abilities to channel the life and lexicon of the past are nothing short of astonishing. She burrows down through the historical record to uncover the tiniest, most telling details, evoking the minutiae of history as vividly as its grand sweep. The dialogue is so convincing that she seems to have been, in another life, a stenographer taking notes in the taverns and palaces of Tudor England.

There are double takes aplenty, however, for those who get their history through films such as “A Man for All Seasons” or “Anne of a Thousand Days,” never mind “The Tudors.” Prepare for some seismic historical revisions. Mantel’s Henry VIII is neither the bloated monster of popular legend nor the svelte sex machine played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Instead, he’s a balding, middle-aged hypochondriac who is prone to bursting into tears. He is also -- prepare yourself -- no good in bed.

It’s Sir Thomas More, though, who truly goes through the shredder. So, you thought More was the valiant, dignified saint from “A Man for All Seasons,” the hero of conscience prepared to stand up to secular powers and die for his faith? Alas, no. Mantel presents him as a self-flagellating Catholic zealot who beats his servants, bullies his wife and tortures Protestants in horrible ways. He is not a man of conscience but a creature of worldly vanity, more interested in keeping face than keeping faith. “More is too proud to retreat from his position,” Cromwell observes after failing to get More to swear the oath. “He is afraid to lose his credibility with the scholars of Europe.”

Against More’s faith Mantel opposes Cromwell’s reason. Whereas More reads the Bible only to have his fixed opinions happily confirmed, Cromwell questions orthodoxy, dogmatism and superstition. For him, “what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little. . . . Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’ ” Not one for hocus-pocus of any sort, he’s also against astrology and the Arthurian legends.

This cold rationality makes Cromwell a frustratingly passionless creature -- a Machiavellian without the panache. By the time Mantel’s story truly begins, in 1527, his days of excitement (soldiering in Italy) are long past, recollected only in snatches. A great love from his younger days, Anselma, is merely hinted at. He has an affair with his dead wife’s sister -- but the sex is strictly off-page, referred to in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them passages. He briefly takes a shine to Jane Seymour but does nothing about it. When his trusty factotum confesses to being “violently in love” with a girl, Cromwell asks: “How does that feel?”

How, indeed. A functionary who trots around obediently on the business of his superiors, Cromwell understands loyalty, not love. In our technocratic age of spin doctors and policy wonks, it’s maybe inevitable that he, and not More, should become our new patron saint.