Swimming with sharks

A darkly brilliant reimagining of life under Henry VIII

The historical novel is set in the earlier part of Henry VIII’s reign and ends before he orders the trial and beheading of Anne Boleyn. The historical novel is set in the earlier part of Henry VIII’s reign and ends before he orders the trial and beheading of Anne Boleyn. (Museo Thyssen Bornemisza)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2009

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“No man marks the narrow space/ ‘twixt a prison and a smile,’’ Henry Wotton, the 17th-century diplomat-poet, cautioned the great courtiers of his day. And concluded: “Learn to swim, and not to wade;/ For the hearts of kings are deep.’’

It could have been the epigraph for Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,’’ a darkly magnificent novel set in the earlier part of the reign of Henry VIII. By the end, Henry had annulled his marriage to Catherine, married Anne Boleyn, broken with Rome, and begun the process that would set him up as supreme head of what became the Church of England.

Two exalted waders, the royal chancellors Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Sir Thomas More, had successively drowned under the king’s shifting tides; Anne, a wader who thought she was swimming, still had her crown and her head.

A good historical novel snakes a vivid story through a vivid panorama. The better ones - Ian Pears’s “An Instance of the Fingerpost’’ - have a third dimension, with full-fleshed characters borne on a current that runs far deeper than their actions. “Wolf Hall,’’ recently named winner of 2009 Man Booker Prize, moves through an Einsteinian fourth dimension: time.

So do they all, of course. But this is time that does something other than fit a 16th-century plot and a 16th-century way of speaking and acting onto characters that we can recognize as not really strange to us. Mantel makes her characters very strange indeed. Instead of bringing the past to us, her writing, brilliant and black, launches us disconcertingly into the past. We are space-time travelers landed on an alien world.

Take this scene. John Frith, an underground Protestant, is burned as a heretic (Henry, despite asserting his power against Rome, still considered himself a Catholic.) The king goes hunting. “By afternoon the sun is struggling out. Henry, laughing, spurs away his hunter under the dripping trees. At Smithfield Frith is being shoveled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.’’

Mantel’s Henry is a terrifying figure, not in willed cruelty but in the odd sweetness floating amid absolute power’s paranoia, one that unhesitatingly strikes down those closest to him. He sends the deposed Wolsey one of his own rings to cheer him even as he is arranging to send him to the Tower. He is a monstrous child, a lethal innocent, a Gulliver who squashes dozens as he turns over in bed. Nothing may interfere with the turning.

He is a double figure, Mantel writes. “One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship; one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas.’’

Her portrait of Wolsey, stripped of power and ordered to the Tower (he died before arriving), is witty and profound. The great proud tower, indulgently self-furnished, collapses brick by brick. Jaunty with the king’s men who come to order his removal, he trembles and weeps to Thomas Cromwell, his aide and confidante, as they are rowed upriver. Cromwell, priding himself on cool rationality, registers the breakdown with anguish.

“The talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey’s unraveling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.’’

Cromwell is the novel’s central character, drawn with an extraordinary mix of astute complexity and powerful simplicity. As Wolsey’s right-hand man, he should have fallen, too; instead he works his way into Henry’s confidence, displaces the strong men around him and comes to replace his patron as England’s most powerful figure after the king.

He goes on to implement the break with Rome, to set the basis of an English church together with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and to clear the way for Henry’s marriage to Anne. The novel ends before he helps the king order her trial and beheading, and before he falls from power in his wader’s turn, losing his own head, its flesh boiled off, to be hung up on a London wall.

Mantel gives rich detail. She is able to powerfully advance the main line of the story, while conducting fascinating side excursions. Anne is a small, pale, vindictive intriguer whose downfall is visible even in her seeming triumph. There is More, implacable persecutor of Protestants, an eccentrically sympathetic Cranmer, and a blimpish, blustering duke of Norfolk, a bitter Cromwell rival.

Vilified by tradition and some historians as a schemer and betrayer, Cromwell is portrayed by Mantel as an acutely perceptive figure, with a realism often taken as cynical, a sensibility often held in check and - where he can - compassion. Survival, for himself, his family, and friends, is a moral duty; the family scenes are written with witty intimacy.

His every thought and speech breathe intelligence. Intelligence, that is, in a terrible time. When Henry urges him to work in harmony with his other main adviser, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Cromwell decides to keep him as an antagonist so that the king will not suspect them of collusion.

In Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,’’ history is a feast whose various and vital excitements and intrigues make the book a long and complex pleasure. A feast held under a lowering darkness that makes the book a desolation.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 560 pp., $27

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