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Playing his cards close to his chest: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of "Wolf Hall" (Giles Keyte/BBC/Company Productions)

The phenomenal, and to all who loved her early work, overdue success of Hilary Mantel, and the BBC's superb dramatisation of her Tudor novels, have left pundits scrambling to stuff her art into pigeonholes.

Catholic critics, including the Editor of this magazine in the Sunday Times, refight the Reformation by accusing her of producing a modern version of the old patriotic Protestant history; a fictionalised verion of Our Island Story. And it is true that Mantel's Thomas More is a twisted sadomasochist who tortures and executes Protestants, rather than the exemplary Renaissance humanist of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. But then no honest writer or historian can follow Bolt's airbrushing of More's heretic-hunting, and Mantel, for all her inventive gifts, is a stickler for historical accuracy.

Her Cromwell is not quite a hero. Mantel keeps him at a distance by writing about him in the third person. But Catholic writers have a half point when they say we see events through his eyes, just as we see the French Revolution in her novel A Place of Greater Safety through the eyes of Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre rather than the eyes of the revolution's victims. But you need to be a religious propagandist yourself to believe that her choice of point of view makes Mantel's work propaganda.

Equally hopeless in my view are the political commentators who have mused on the strangeness of the public's appreciation of Wolf Hall. We are supposedly sick of manipulative fixers. Yet we warm to her Cromwell. Perhaps secretly we admire the Osbornes and the Mandelsons, despite all our protestations to the contrary.  At least they get things done.

If you want, you can find something in their argument too, and agree that Mantel relishes the brutal realities of politics.

Peter Straughan's script for the BBC is a masterpiece. He compresses two long novels into a mere six hours of television, without ever cluttering the screen or hurrying the pace. I'll watch the series again just to try to work out how he did it. Straughan, like Mantel, does indeed show Cromwell as an operator. When the director Peter Kosminsky turns his camera on him at court, Mark Rylance's Cromwell never lets his feelings show. His face is the mask of the imperturbable bureaucrat, until the moment he is sure his back is covered and he can let rip with the withering voice of a man of power.

But to think that Mantel is just praising or dissecting a practical politician is as simple-minded as thinking she is just updating Protestant patriotism. The screamingly obvious fact about her great historical novels is that she is drawn to revolution. Her glory as a writer is that she shows better than any novelist I know how fast the old certainties can vanish; how events historians will write hundreds of millions of words about happen in a shorter time than it takes a historian to write an academic paper. One minute you must subscribe to the rules of Catholic England or Bourbon France to prosper or just survive, the next they are gone, and there is no going back.

Mantel once said of the working-class matriarchs, who dominated her—Catholic—childhood, "They'd been nowhere but they'd seen everything." You could say the same of her. Mantel understands hope, ambition, envy and, unusually for a woman writer, male sexual desire, but her writing draws its power not only from her startling imagery or her cool observation of her characters, but from her ability to heighten familiar emotions in the furnace of revolution.

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Robert Sharpe
February 27th, 2015
7:02 PM
'As Cromwell gathers more power, he dreams he can turn England into an industrious Protestant nation where the poor are put to work, good folk read the Bible in English and merchants prosper.' Was there ever a man more mistaken?

John Dakin
February 25th, 2015
6:02 PM
I haven't watched the TV series, but I have read Wolf Hall, and I agree that both pigeon-holings of the book are absurd; what Hilary Mantel seems to be doing is creating an all-round picture of a complex man, and of a complex age; in fact, Diarmaid McCullock described Cromwell in very similar terms in a BBC History magazine podcast some months ago.

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