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Wolf Hall: A Novel
Reviewed by Peter J. Buckley, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2010;167:1540-1541. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.10070950
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

Book review accepted for publication July 2010

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Accepted July , 2010.

Copyright © American Psychiatric Association

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In the Frick Museum in New York City, two remarkable 16th-century portraits by Hans Holbein are placed on each side of a mantelpiece. One is of Thomas More, resplendent in an ermine-lined coat and wearing the chain of Lord Chancellor of the Realm. The other is of Thomas Cromwell, his successor, dressed more soberly. Both are penetrating psychological portrayals. More is handsome and seems the embodiment of a powerful yet benign intellect. Cromwell is less attractive; a subtle intellect glimmers through his narrow eyes, but he appears less benign than More.

Cromwell is the protagonist of Hilary Mantel's historical novel Wolf Hall. Set in the court of Henry VIII, Mantel creates vivid and compelling portraits of More and Cromwell in her own right. Holbein also features in a minor role. This novel does not succumb to the isomorphic fallacy—the tendency to interpret the distant past through our contemporary world-view—which often besets historical novels. Instead, Mantel uses a developmental, carefully researched, and brilliantly written account of the psychological growth of Cromwell that enters his psyche (as Mantel imagines it through an almost stream-of-consciousness style) and plunges the reader into the turbulent and frightening world of Tudor England. As sovereign, Henry VIII rescued his country from the divisive aftermath of a devastating civil conflict (The Wars of the Roses), established the nation's religious independence, and set the stage for the Elizabethan Renaissance, where Shakespeare would be the brightest star. This did not happen without much unfortunate bloodshed and persecution as well as frequent legally sanctioned beheadings, including More; Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was also the mother of Elizabeth I; and ultimately Cromwell himself. Mantel is witheringly clear about the ubiquitous use of private and state violence to further ambition and personal agendas.

Cromwell is portrayed as an abused child who escaped his father's relentless brutality and fled to continental Europe. A brilliant autodidact, he learned finance, law, and philosophy and became fluent in multiple languages. Upon his return, he became Cardinal Wolsey's advisor and legal counsel. The portrayal of Wolsey, the second most powerful man in England after the King until he was deposed, is one of the highlights of the novel, as is that of More. In Mantel's reading, More is not the sanctified figure of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, but a self-righteous sadist, albeit the author of Utopia, whose greatest pleasure lay in the burning of heretics. Henry VIII, vain, self-indulgent, and infantile, does not come off lightly in this book either, although his shrewd intelligence is acknowledged.

Mantel's powerful evocation of Cromwell through her use of internal and external dialogue leaves the reader with an appreciation for this appealing and often compassionate individual who, with all his frailties, remains in the mind as if one had known him intimately. The reader cannot ask more from a novelist.

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