Hilary Mantel is the finest underappreciated writer working in Britain. While her better-known contemporaries (Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan—make your own list) garner fame and fortune, she quietly produces one excellent novel after another. Each is different: They range from a portrait of a sheltered twentieth-century woman misreading a Muslim culture (Eight Months on Ghazzah Street ) to a hilariously dark send- up of the psychic profession in all its guises (Beyond Black ) to the best novel I have ever read about the French Revolution (A Place of Greater Safety ). Yet they all contain the essential Mantel element, which is a style— of writing and of thinking—that combines steely-eyed intelligence with intense yet wide-ranging sympathy. This style implies enormous respect for her readers, as if she believes that we are as intelligent and empathetic as she is, and one of the acute pleasures of reading her books is that we sometimes find ourselves living up to those expectations.
Wolf Hall is both like and unlike anything else Mantel has written. It most resembles A Place of Greater Safety, which is also a historical novel (though to saddle either of these masterpieces with that hackneyed label is a bit like calling Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower a historical novel: The description is technically accurate and at the same time completely misleading in tone). This one deals with a passage of English history that is at once broadly familiar and particularly obscure. Mantel focuses on the period from 1527 to 1535, when Henry VIII was figuring out how to get rid of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn; in order to do so, he ended up breaking Catholicism's hold on England and naming himself the head of the church.
By centering the narrative on Thomas Cromwell—a blacksmith's son who rose to become one of the king's most powerful advisers, and whose great-great-grandnephew, Oliver Cromwell, eventually became lord protector of England—Mantel gives us a new perspective on the era and its machinations. Cardinal Wolsey (with whom Cromwell got his start) becomes a much more complicated and appealing figure, and Sir Thomas More becomes downright hateful: not at all the saintly martyr portrayed in A Man for All Seasons and in Catholic theology generally, but a ruthless, narrow-minded egotist who cannot imagine the possibility of his own error.
Mantel is a great hater, and part of that greatness lies in the subtlety and delicate modulation of her hatred. When she shows us More being casually cruel to his long-suffering wife (he insults her in Latin, a language she doesn't know, while she serves dinner to his guests), we think we will never forgive this man; and yet at the end of the novel, when Cromwell repeatedly visits the imprisoned More in an effort to get him to capitulate to the king and save his own life, we find ourselves adopting the grudging admiration that Cromwell feels toward this now-pitiful figure. It is with More's execution, in fact, that the novel ends, even though much still lay ahead in Cromwell's and Henry's careers.
This in medias res approach is an essential aspect of Mantel's technique. She expects us to know things: that the king executed Anne, for instance, who is shown here only as a powerfully intelligent, destiny-controlling figure; that his subsequent wife was Jane Seymour, who merely gets a few brief though pointed cameos; and that each of the children of his first three wives ruled England in turn—first Edward, then Mary, then Elizabeth—despite his efforts to cut the girls out of the line of succession. All these events take place outside and after the novel we hold in our hands, and we can certainly read Wolf Hall without knowing about them, but the story becomes much richer if we are acquainted with this history.
The triumph of the novel, though, lies in its portrayal of Cromwell. No doubt he is better known in England, but we Americans are at first glance likely to confuse him with his more famous great-great-grandnephew. Forget that: Oliver will dwindle in your mind to a mere nothing after you have met Mantel's Thomas. We see at close hand his public and private political negotiations, his astute business methods, his intelligent, multilingual dealings with all sorts of Europeans. We live in his house, watch him hire and train his servants, share his sorrow as his wife and then his daughters die of the plague, and observe him shaping the lives of the young men who come to be his devoted dependents. His poor and violent background, his utterly self-made and sometimes self-obscuring character, make him by far the most sympathetic figure in the crowd of devious nobles surrounding Henry.
Quotation does not begin to do justice to Mantel's prose, since her marvelous effects are largely cumulative. But one gets a hint of her tone from the following passage, which describes Cromwell's encounter with Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk—an insufferable snob despised by many at court, including his own brother-in-law, the king. Slyly observing that "dukes revolve in their spheres" and "like to be surrounded . . . by men who reflect them and are subservient to them," Mantel shows us Suffolk taking Cromwell with him to look at the king's kennels:
The kennel children are carrying baskets of bread and bones, buckets of offal and basins of pigs'-blood pottage. Charles Brandon inhales, appreciative: like a dowager in a rose garden.
A huntsman calls forward a favorite bitch, white patched with chestnut, Barbada, four years old. He straddles her and pulls back her head to show her eyes, clouded with a fine film. He will hate to kill her, but he doubts she will be much use this season. He, Cromwell, cups the bitch's jaw in his hand. "You can draw off the membrane with a curved needle. I've seen it done. You need a steady hand and to be quick. She doesn't like it, but then she won't like to be blind." He runs his hand over her ribs, feels the panicked throb of her little animal heart. "The needle must be very fine. And just this length." He shows them, between finger and thumb. "Let me talk to your smith."
Suffolk looks sideways at him. "You're a useful sort of man."
The scene is highly realistic and at the same time resonant with allusive meaning. The bitch who will have to be put down if she cannot be made to see clearly—might this also refer to Anne and her future death, or perhaps to Katherine and her present danger? And universes are contained in that final two-sentence paragraph. Suffolk is not the only Tudor aristocrat who "looks sideways" at Cromwell, nor is he the only one to perceive Cromwell's practicality, which cannot be separated from his low birth, his childhood spent in a blacksmith's forge, his knowledge of exactly how to make and wield a sharp implement. That the curative needle can also be a threatening weapon is part of its usefulness.
Mantel, in reviewing a nonfiction book about the French Revolution, once said of another writer, "She was the maddest of all female Robespierrists (and in this matter I yield to few)." That same tender wit and detachment inform her portrait of Cromwell. She loves him even as she perceives what is most dangerous about him. Her love, moreover, is not a socially or historically predictable position. Mantel was raised a Catholic and a northerner (as we know from her terrific memoir, Giving Up the Ghost ), so one might expect her to side with the firmly Catholic More or perhaps with the Cardinal of York, and not with the Putney-born Londoner who helped turn England Protestant. But class, for Mantel, is the defining experience of her British upbringing, and in that respect Cromwell is her man. Like her, he came from a despised background and was forced to clamber up on his own, and we can feel in every sentence of the novel how much she understands this side of him.
If you are anything like me, you will finish Wolf Hall wishing it were twice as long as its 560 pages. Torn away from this sixteenth-century world, in which you have come to know the engaging, pragmatic Cromwell as if he were your own brother—as if he were yourself—you will turn to the Internet to find out more about him. You will gaze at length on the Holbein portraits of Cromwell and More that you can find with Google Images, and you will try to read into those faces the characters Mantel has discerned. You will sift through Wikipedia for more clues about Henry's reign and Cromwell's fate and the lives and deaths of the Tudor queens. You will, I suspect, read each new piece of information about Tudor England with fresh and sharpened eyes. But none of this, however instructive, will make up for your feeling of loss, because none of this additional material will come clothed in the seductive, inimitable language of Mantel's great fiction.
Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of the Threepenny Review, is the author, most recently, of Room for Doubt (Pantheon/Vintage, 2007). She is at work on a book about Shostakovich and his fifteen quartets.