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I would hesitate to judge whether Hilary Mantel’s heavyweight historical novel Wolf Hall was deserving of the 2009 Man Booker prize, not least because I have not knowingly read any of the other nominees, whatever they may be. In any event, it is surely Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell who has won the Booker prize – little else in this “novel” can be really classified as fictional. Mantel has described Cromwell as “a nightmare to a biographer and a gift to a novelist,” because whilst “his public life is exceptionally well documented, his private life [is] hardly known at all.”

Wolf Hall is founded on the assumption that a novelist can intervene at those points where historians and biographers were unable to establish truth, and instead indicate what probably happened. Mantel makes the off-the-record details of Cromwell’s life harmlessly complement the recorded history of Henry VIII’s court, so that the reader forsakes little if agreeing to the plausibility of her Cromwell. For Mantel, Wolf Hall is “true in the way a painting is true,” and she thereby envisages a historical novelist who does not merely appropriate history to colour their novel, but who aims to illuminate history itself. This recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ambitions for historical fiction:

Few of the personages of past times (except such as have gained renown in fireside legends as well as in written history) are anything more than mere names to their successors. They seldom stand up in our imaginations like men. The knowledge communicated by the historian and biographer is analogous to that which we acquire of a country by the map, – minute, perhaps, and accurate, and available for all necessary purposes, but cold and naked, and wholly destitute of the mimic charm produced by landscape-painting… A license must be assumed in brightening the materials which time has rusted…

Yet one will look in vain amongst Hawthorne’s fictions for bright, clear pictures of history, and whilst the play and trickery of his narratives would avoid surrendering easy certainties, Mantel gatecrashes the deliberations of historians with the ambition of completing their work. Wolf Hall, to bend Hawthorne’s metaphor, both draws the map and colours it in, although the emphasis of Mantel’s Cromwell when contemplating Christendom is upon accurate mapping:

There are maps, of a kind; castles stud their fields, their battlements prettily inked, their chases and parks marked by lines of bushy trees, with drawings of harts and bristling boar… these maps are deficient in all practical respects; they do not, for example, tell you which way is north…

Mantel has an expert command of the history and a flair for elegant prose, so we may expect a pretty, colourful map which is sufficient in all practical respects. But is this a viable model of historical fiction?

To truly read Wolf Hall one needs to be already familiar with the relevant historical personages and their standing within history. It helps to know that the book is in effect a revisionist polemic, which challenges the established hostility towards Cromwell within works such as Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (Wolsey’s joke that Cromwell “goes about the countryside committing outrages” anticipates this reputation). Anybody who reads Wolf Hall as a straightforward historical romance will probably complain that it is rendered almost incoherent by an overindulgence in unnecessary detail. The knowing reader who anticipates Cromwell’s downfall will be disappointed – as the book only gets as far as Thomas More’s execution – but one ignorant of the course of history could share in Cromwell’s happy ending.

Yet worse awaits one who has at least a passing knowledge of Henry VIII’s court. Did More really accuse Cardinal Wolsey of seeking to poison the king with sweating sickness (incredibly, More did)? Did contemporaries really gossip that More was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter (apparently so)? Had Cromwell really read Machiavelli’s The Prince (some say not until 1537)? The narrative of Wolf Hall retains no means of declaring where the facts end and the fiction begins, and so one interested in the history of the piece has to read the book with Google at their elbow, to verify any eyebrow-raising detail. This novel should be really subtitled “Bring your own footnotes.”

Although Mantel is already writing a sequel to Wolf Hall, one wonders whether she will ever find the heart to preside over Cromwell‘s death. Whereas Bolt had bluntly summed up Cromwell as “an intellectual bully,” Mantel may not necessarily disagree with this description, but her Cromwell is otherwise a superman. Self-made, cosmopolitan, and open-minded, his self-assurance is only matched by his resourcefulness; and he is, in effect, a prototype of the modern bourgeois citizen. It may be just coincidence that all of his personal relationships are also investments – and, to be fair, nobody in that period could afford to bring up a child for the sake of it – but this Cromwell’s outlook is utterly utilitarian, and there is apparently not a moment of carelessness or whimsicality in his entire life.

Despite being simultaneously kindly and ruthless, this Cromwell is a surprisingly uncomplicated character, and, oddly enough, his iron will, unfaltering progress, and discerning appetites cannot fail to remind one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Fleming’s own description of Bond as “a neutral figure – an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a government department” would almost fit Cromwell, were “government department” exchanged for “king.” Both characters are informed by a degree of fantasy and hero-worship which makes one vaguely suspicious of their creators. Yet this Cromwell also noticeably resembles Robert Bolt’s “Common Man”:

COMMON MAN: It is perverse! To start a play made up of Kings and Cardinals in speaking costumes and intellectuals with embroidered mouths, with me.

Mantel’s Cromwell is virtually “tinker, tailor, soldier, spy,” and he “is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard.” Wolves roam the hall – More, Boleyn, Seymour, and Cranmer are all enterprising upstarts – and at Henry’s court, aristocratic right is viewed as a worthy but rather provincial ideal. The Common Man’s “philosophy” is “impregnable” – upon regarding More, he concludes that “the likes of me can hardly be expected to follow the processes of a man like that” – whilst Mantel’s Cromwell is “unknowable” and “probably indefeasible.” This Cromwell is almost entirely un-ideological – apparently signifying Renaissance and Protestant ideals in an animal state – and he dismisses The Prince as “a few aphorisms, a few truisms, nothing we didn’t know before.” He wonders of More, “Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before?,” but perhaps this merely conveys impatience at More’s aimless, impractical intellectualism, which contrasted so absurdly with his bigotry once in government.

One cannot quite define Cromwell and More as, respectively, pragmatism and inflexibility personified – even if More will end up pig-headedly bent on his own martyrdom – because Cromwell’s fidelity to Renaissance and Reformation may be just as fierce and principled as More’s own faith, but he is not (so far) required to betray these ideals. Just as it is difficult to distinguish Cromwell’s pragmatism and tolerance from his ideology, it is equally hard to tell whether More’s lack of “pity” emerges naturally from his political assumptions.

Over the last decade, literature, cinema, and television have gone to quite incredible lengths to explore and advance what should be an obviously inadequate genre: faction, that botched synthesis which is really a negation, and leaves none of the certainties of journalism nor the freedoms of fiction. Wolf Hall is the latest, and possibly the very best, contribution to this field. Whatever is signified by the final exchanges between More and Cromwell is the fantasy of a confrontation between two ideologies rather than reliable historical insight. Wolf Hall may be a fabulous novel and great history, but it is in the final analysis not very sound cartography. Such is history, as Cromwell despairs:

But the trouble is, maps are always last year’s. England is always remaking herself… They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move and even the histories that trail us…

One can only read the map which leads to Wolf Hall after consulting a lot of other maps beforehand, and this novel ultimately amounts to a mass of possibilities about an unknown terrain, which is too wrinkled with detail to be lovely in itself. Perhaps great literature can emerge from this, but only if you bring your own footnotes.