Boyd Tonkin: Rescuing the Tudor court from cliché and melodrama

Share
Related Topics

So often in recent years a playground for the maverick judge, the runaway panel, the perverse decision, yesterday the Man Booker Prize rewarded a genuinely outstanding novel.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall deserves its long-foretold triumph even though – my only proviso – it ends mid-stream in summer 1535. The final acts of Thomas Cromwell's tale, as the arriviste fixer who opened every door for his master Henry VIII, remain untold. But this is a novel from an author who credits readers with the nous to foresee the end of a story – or of history's sick joke – from its beautifully rendered beginnings.

Remember that Pat Barker, who should have won the Booker with the first volume of her First World War trilogy, Regeneration, had to wait until the slight anticlimax of The Ghost Road. So why not strike while the iron is hot? Some of our idioms – and Mantel deploys a salty, flinty language superbly well without ever sliding into Ye Olde Tudor costume-drama pastiche – would have sounded very familiar to Cromwell, the Putney blacksmith's clever son.

And so would much else about today's princes and courtiers to the ringmaster of a spectacular, and blood-stained, political circus. In the 1530s, as now, the savage quest to grasp and keep high office enlists grand ideas – the reformed religion and Renaissance humanism, in the case of Cromwell and his adversary Thomas More – with a mixture of shameless opportunism and genuine idealism.

When Mantel's Cromwell stands up for Protestant liberty of conscience, she shows him as a pragmatic adopter of high-status new ideas but also as a spokesman for values that should persist. In her work, shining ideals and their tarnished promoters can never be separated for long.

Mantel has always written brilliantly about the operation of power. Above all, she focuses on those turning points of breakthrough and breakdown where personal and public motivations intersect. If Wolf Hall achieves the near-impossible task of rescuing the Tudor court saga from cliché and melodrama, it also slots neatly into a body of work that looks shrewdly behind the robes and the words of the mighty.

Wolf Hall begins with a thrashed child; it ends with Cromwell imagining the execution of his nemesis, with More's "lips moving in his final prayer".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

NVQ Assessor Level 2 & 3 Sport Development

£19200 - £26880 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: In NVQ Ass...

Secondary supply teachers required in Newmarket

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

Programme Test Manager

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush, London

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh  

Scottish independence: Forget Yes and No — what about a United Kingdom of Independent States?

Ben Judah
Francois Hollande at the Paris summit on Iraq with ministers from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on 15 September  

What's going to happen in Syria and Iraq? A guide to the new anti-Isis coalition's global strategy

Jonathan Russell
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week