Review: ‘Wolf Hall,’ by Hilary Mantel

Cromwell is also, as Mantel sees him, a closet Protestant, monitoring Luther’s battles with Rome and exchanging secret letters with Tyndale, the English translator of the Bible, about the “brutal truth” of the Scriptures. “Why does the pope have to be in Rome?” Cromwell wonders. “Where is it written?” Historians have long suspected that Cromwell harbored Protestant sympathies, even before Anne Boleyn’s “resistant, quick-breathing and virginal bosom” caught the king’s eye. Mantel, with the novelist’s license, draws the circle more tightly. As a child, Cromwell is present when an old woman is burned at the stake for heresy: “Even after there was nothing left to scream, the fire was stoked.” Years later, he watches in disgust as Thomas More rounds up more heretics to feed to the fire. For Mantel, who acknowledges her debt to revisionist scholars, Henry’s divorce is the impetus for Cromwell’s “Tudor Revolution,” as the historian Geoffrey Elton called it, by which the British state won independence from foreign and ecclesiastic rule.

In “Wolf Hall” it is More, the great imaginer of utopia, who is the ruthless tormentor of English Protestants, using the rack and the ax to set the “quaking world” aright. “Utopia,” Cromwell learns early on, “is not a place one can live.” More’s refusal to recognize Henry’s marriage was the basis for his canonization in 1935, as well as his portrayal as a hero of conscience in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” and its 1966 screen version. To Mantel’s Cromwell, More is in love with his own martyrdom, his own theatrical self-importance, while Cromwell, more in keeping with the spirit of Bolt’s title, seeks a way out for his old rival.

‘Wolf Hall’ has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike.

There’s a tense moment when More, locked in the Tower of London awaiting trial for treason, claims to have harmed no one. Cromwell explodes. What about Bainham, a mild man whose only sin was that he was a Protestant? “You forfeited his goods, committed his poor wife to prison, saw him racked with your own eyes, you locked him in Bishop Stokesley’s cellar, you had him back at your own house two days chained upright to a post, you sent him again to Stokesley, saw him beaten and abused for a week, and still your spite was not exhausted: you sent him back to the Tower and had him racked again.” Tortured, Bainham names names, who happen to be friends of Cromwell’s. “That’s how the year goes out, in a puff of smoke, a pall of human ash.”