Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (4th Estate 2009)
Written in beautiful, slightly quirky and so captivating prose, it’s full of vividly realised scenes and characters to care about, of engrossing argument in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. For me the main pleasure was of historical revisionism. In taking Thomas Cromwell as its hero, it effectively challenges the version of the English Reformation – indeed of the Protestant Reformation as a whole – that I absorbed from the nuns and brothers and, I’m embarrassed to acknowledge, remained pretty much intact under the assault of an undergraduate course in Reformation History. I’m consoled somewhat by having the great Erasmus as an offstage character who pretty much shares my understanding, and by a sense, especially toward the end, that it’s Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons rather than my young self that Hilary Mantel has in her sights. Thomas More – that’s Saint Thomas More to me – is portrayed here, among other things, a pitiless torturer and a misogynist a***hole. I suppose my younger self might have read this as Protestant propaganda. I hope I would have checked the evidence, and come to the conclusion that if it is propaganda, what it’s propagating is the view that rigid and intolerantly held religious views are an abomination, and that there is great virtue in devoting one’s self to making things go well.
I can’t read historical fiction these days without sensing Inga Clendinnen reading over my shoulder. I think she would approve of this.