The other Thomas
Ever since the play and film, A Man for All Seasons, debuted in the 1960’s, Thomas More has been regarded as a paragon of integrity, with Thomas Cromwell relegated to the role of unscrupulous manipulator. Vanora Bennett’s 2007 novel Portrait of an Unknown Woman suggests that More had a less heroic side. Now with Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has turned the paradigm on its ear. Her Thomas More is a heretic-torturing fanatic, one who is arrogant, posturing, and heartless. Her Thomas Cromwell, for the first time in popular fiction, emerges as a fully developed individual with intelligence, compassion, and humanity. He is a commoner who has risen to the great heights by means of his own efforts, an ordinary man who is not intimidated by aristocratic disdain.
Narrated in present tense and incorporating flashbacks, Wolf Hall provides readers with a seat at Cromwell’s shoulder as he assesses the tenor of the times and decides that England must move in an entirely new direction if it is not to be left out of modern Europe. The Church has had its day, and no amount of heretic burning will change that fact. Cromwell builds a relationship with Henry VIII that is based entirely on practicality. It is not so much that Cromwell is corrupt or treacherous (he is not), but that he knows about the inner workings of both business and government, and about the inner desires of those at the top and those who are trying to get there.
Mantel’s ability to breathe life into 16th century England and a story that has become hackneyed with retelling is prodigious. There is no melodrama here, though there’s plenty of action. Her prose is spare but evocative (“The moon, as if disgraced, trails rags of black cloud.”) and her characters, no matter what their personal foibles, are immensely human.
Hilary Mantel is an author I wish I’d discovered earlier, but that’s easily remedied. Wolf Hall is entirely deserving of the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in my estimation, should be on the short list for best novel of the year.