It's odd how this benchmarking happens. By an unspoken consensus among columnists, reviewers and commentators, some author or title will emerge periodically from the unstoppable tide of new publishing and briefly become a shorthand for some perennial concern or talking point. As Dan Brown becomes the new Jeffrey Archer, so Wolf Hall becomes the new White Teeth.
Now, apart from its rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell (no, not Oliver, the Tudor one), Wolf Hall seems to me a good but unremarkable book. I imagine it's a fairly typical "historical novel" (this is not a genre I've explored much before), an act of ventriloquism using some rather familiar puppets -- oh, that Henry VIII! As so often, there is an element of hype at work here. But it has two features I found intriguing.
The first is its title. I love it when the title of a book strikes a note of mystery every time you pick the thing up: you ask yourself, so why on earth is this book called Wolf Hall? My background alertness is primed for possible clues and I find this has an effect on my reading, like keeping half an ear open for the doorbell to announce a visitor. Only about halfway through does the name get mentioned, restriking the title's note in an oblique, intriguing way. It creates a sense of absence, a sense of yearning that is very effective. I suppose the invocation of "Rosebud!" of Citizen Kane comes inevitably to mind.
The second is the way the book emphasises the cautious impatience of the practically-minded with the hypocritical domination of the religiously-inclined, but also the strength of the desire of influential parts of the populace to read the Bible and worship in English. Both feel right. I was brought up in a Baptist-cum-Cheerfully-Agnostic household, so my take on the Reformation may be a little skewed, but there's no doubting that this combustible mix of religion, commerce, and national interest fuelled the furnace that forged our subsequent national history and character.
But I suppose the really shocking thing is to be forcefully reminded that once there was a time when you could be ritually disembowelled or burned alive for your beliefs. And the slightly shaming thing is that this grisly fate was, at that time, simply insufficient to discourage dissent, or at least the dissent of people with an unshakable belief that there was but one correct route to salvation for their immortal soul.
I don't know about you, but I don't think there's anything -- no belief, no loyalty, no fear, no consequence -- that would lead me to endure death at the stake as a preferred option to betrayal. Luckily, I'm unlikely ever to find out.
Meanwhile, back in the 21st century...
Both ends of the Bike Shed