Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) was signally more than just a venture into historical fiction by one of our most gifted novelists – it was a piece of elegant necromancy. Peopled by vitally shifting dramatis personae, it triumphed in at once giving us a shrewd image of its central figure, Thomas Cromwell, and at the same time hedging that image with a corona of indeterminacy and volatility that made good the 'lifeness' that the critic James Wood prizes in the very best novels. Mantel's Cromwell is an electrifying figure, and she confers on him the dignity of a fully-realised human being: “He is the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell.” He deploys his statecraft with genius, yet frets that he may have the face of a murderer. He is directly complicit in engineering the execution of Sir Thomas More, yet jibs at the unflattering portrait Hans Holbein has made of him.
The suppleness of Mantel's prose ensures that she never sacrifices the reader's patience by depositing gobbets of historical detail at your feet, like a truffle hound. Henry VIII's bid to disentangle himself from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the bitter contention with the Papacy, and, latterly, the unavailing efforts of Cromwell to have More swear an oath of recantation and accede to the Act of Supremacy – all this was dynamically, thrillingly portrayed. Yet Cromwell's domestic life was rendered with a sweetness and compassion, an almost eerie acuity. It's in according Cromwell the ultimate privacies – he seems fully ensouled, dense with mystery, in all his power and vulnerability – that Mantel has performed the rarest of feats. Like the spiritualist Alison in her Beyond Black, she conjures the dead, bodies forth phantoms..