Boyd Tonkin: Front runner who tramples our myths

The Week In Books

Bless the hallowed traditions of the British press. At least writers always know where they stand with it. Short of a bedroom imbroglio, what else can ever thrust an esteemed author of literray fiction onto the front pages? That's right - a scandal at the bookies.

True, the betting combines courted a humiliating fall when they fixed the early odds for this year's Man Booker Prize. 16/1 for Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, a novel cheered to the rafters from a deeply respected writer who has just missed too many major honours, always looked dumb. No surprise that 90 per cent of the smart, quick money soon rode on the back of this frisky Tudor epic, now a white-hot favourite.

Anyone who frets at this vulgar intrusion of cash and chance into the august enclosures of literature should read Wolf Hall at once. Closer in style and mood to Tom Wolfe than Walter Scott, Mantel's racy and rocketing account of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power at the court of Henry VIII stitches a canny materialism deep into the fabric of the new, rational and businesslike, England that Cromwell did so much to create. Indeed, she takes care to specify one trait among the other qualities that make her Putney blacksmith's son such a stellar arbitrator, plotter, trader, deal-closer and all-round fixer for the crown. "He will take a bet on anything." And so will we.

Driven too fast to the front of the pack, Wolf Hall may well go the way of every other dead cert in Booker history. It should, at least, force many readers to refurbish some dusty received ideas about the reign that saw the end of Rome's command over the English church and the creation of a national theology. To present the novel's protagonist as a simple rebuttal of the grasping bully depicted by Robert Bolt in his play A Man For All Seasons would be too neat. Yet in restoring a balance between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, and suggesting that Bolt's steadfast Catholic saint had no monopoly on virtue or on wit, Mantel breaks with much hackneyed history.

For all the final triumph of the Reformation, which Cromwell worked so hard to promote, many of the stories that the British tell about their Tudor past have long favoured More's side of the quarrel. In the Victorian era, the Roman hierarchy returned to Britain as state discrimination ended. Leading thinkers and writers (with John Henry Newman showing the way) drifted in the direction of the Pope. A rose-tinted cult of the Middle Ages began – via groups such as the Pre-Raphaelites - to judge Protestant supremacy under the Tudors as a defeat for cherished ideals of beauty and community.

This pro-Catholic wave spread deeper through popular culture as Non-Conformist Protestantism declined, altering the climate within the Church of England and taking root in the minds of millions with little or no faith. More the hero versus Cromwell the thug; Merrie Roman England against the grim Protestant work ethic; touchy-feely communal togetherness against alienated individualism: Rome lost the political battle, but maybe won the cultural war. Mantel has a scene in which Cromwell lashes out at his rival: "What is history? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More." So it has turned out.

Mantel writes about living people, not abstract doctrines. But in the breadth of its sympathies and vigour of its prose, Wolf Hall does chip away at a bedrock of sentiment that lies beneath many common views of the great change Cromwell brought about.

You could argue that every aspect of British liberalism turns on its Tudor Protestant legacy, however diluted and de-Christianised, from the vernacular literature rooted inTyndale's Bible (which this Cromwell reveres) to a contractual relationship between self and society. Modern liberals, however, prefer visions of a communitarian dream-world under the wing of a paternal authority. Utopia, in fact. As imagined, first, by a certain Thomas More.

P.S. Fury and vehemence have marked the ongoing debate among children's authors over the government's demand that writers – like anyone else who works with children – fork out a fee for their vetting before they make paid visits to schools. These waters run deep, and they run strong. Foes of this pre-emptive hunt for potential abusers, led by Philip Pullman (left), have the upper hand over conciliators such as Children's Laureate Anthony Browne. Inevitably, the unique case of William Mayne – the children's novelist jailed for indecent assaults on girls in 2004 – has entered the quarrel. Yet no one dares to ask whether many children's classics – of the past, at least - represent a complete, successful and benign sublimation of their authors' "inappropriate" feelings. That tends to be how good art works in many fields. Why not here as well?

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport