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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?