Book review: Wolf Hall

WOLF HALL Hilary Mantel Fourth Estate, £18.99

IT'S only one of the many dark and resonant ironies of Hilary Mantel's epic new book, Wolf Hall, that the protagonists eventually resolve to go to Wolf Hall on the last of the novel's 650 pages.

Set during the reign of Henry VIII, Mantel takes a further daring step by forgoing the better-known figures – the monarch, the queens and princesses beloved of Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory, the Catholic saint Sir Thomas More ("the greatest historical character in English history", according to GK Chesterton) or the Protestant martyrs Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer. Instead, she plunges the reader into the consciousness of Sir Thomas Cromwell, Henry's chief minister and Vicegerent in Spirituals.

Cromwell has not, to date, fared well in cultural depictions. He appears in Shakespeare's Henry VIII as a minor character (in scenes most likely written by John Fletcher) and was the subject of an entire play by "W.S.", once thought to be Shakespeare and memorably described by Swinburne as "shapeless, spiritless, bodiless, soulless, senseless, helpless, worthless rubbish". Kenneth Williams took the role in Carry On Henry; as did Leo McKern in the more elevating A Man For All Seasons, where Cromwell is the principal villain. Mantel's triumph is to take a figure associated with ambition, scheming and avarice and transform him into a sympathetic, humane and supremely modern man.

Born in Putney around 1485, Cromwell started life as the son of a blacksmith, and was executed in 1540 as the first Earl of Essex. He disappears from view as a young man, although it is known he worked for Florentine bankers and Dutch cloth dealers, before resurfacing in the employ of Cardinal Wolsey. After Wolsey's fall, Cromwell was instrumental in annulling Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon (paving the way for Anne Boleyn) and in breaking England from the Papacy.

Again, Mantel's approach is oblique and ingenious. The "missing years" would be a gift to a lesser novelist: in Wolf Hall those years are still shrouded in mystery, a mystery Cromwell carefully cultivates to his advantage. Nor does Mantel attempt a moralistic "rise and fall": the action is concentrated into just over six years, with flashbacks, ending in 1535.

At one point, Cromwell comments: "It's all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it's no good at all if you don't have a plan for tomorrow." The novel follows this logic, giving a rich grain to the day-by-day changes, challenges, evasions, volte-faces and double-bluffs of public policy. Even though the historical record fixes what will happen, Mantel is free to speculate with her characters on all the mights, near-misses and what-ifs. It creates tension and urgency in a narrative that is otherwise predestined. Brilliantly, the novel disdains foreknowledge, so the relatively minor roles played by Elizabeth, Mary and Jane Seymour take on wry and ominous overtones. In one perfect such moment, Cromwell allows himself the luxury to think of his great-grandchildren enjoying his mansion and fortune: his great-great-grandnephew, of course, was Oliver Cromwell.

Mantel's career as a novelist seems to have been slightly hampered by her refusal to fit into easy pigeonholes. Readers who were entranced by her black comedy about a tortured Home Counties medium in Beyond Black might stumble with her French Revolutionary epic, A Place Of Greater Safety (another novel where she redeems historical pariahs). Likewise, the social realism of An Experiment In Love and the eerie fairytale Fludd could be the work of different authors.

Wolf Hall manages to unite her interests thus far. It is a novel about power, both political and supernatural, in which Cromwell manipulates the invisible web of profit just as disgruntled priests conjure up expedient prophets. Accountancy and astrology vie with each other.

It is a novel about how women can gain control, and how they can be thwarted and become the victims of their desired roles. Mantel has also written an affecting memoir, which included details of the endometriosis that she suffered from; and in Wolf Hall the issues of childlessness and infant mortality take on a national as well as personal significance.

Wolf Hall must be a frontrunner for this year's Man Booker Prize. Mantel's Cromwell is an almost Shakespearean creation: self-aware and self-doubting, ruthless and sentimental, an iconoclast attuned to the power of images and the image of power. In precise, haunting prose, Mantel has created a Portrait of the Civil Servant as an Artist.