In the end I succumbed. I was off to Germany for a long weekend and I wanted an intelligent airport book. People whose opinion I respect had enjoyed Wolf Hall, and so I bought it at Heathrow, a big fat slab of a thing.
Needless to say, it is tremendously good, a historical novel in the sense that War and Peace is a historical novel - in short, not at all.
It reminds us that the practice of virtue in public life is far from straightforward, and that just as evil often comes disguised as good, or as a man of wealth and taste, so good may occasionally take the form of the seemingly bad.
So rich, thick, complicated a book deserbes the adjective 'important'. But why? What is important about it?
Thomas Cromwell, from whose point of view the book is entirely told, is presented as a Modern man, in the sense that it is Reason rather than Faith that dictates his actions. Implicit is the idea that Reason has more moral heft than Faith. At the same time, in a war it is not enough to be neutral, whether that is a war of words and ideas or a war of arms. If your sympathies are more for one side than the other, then you must commit yourself wholly.
Cromwell, the pugnacious brewer's son became the most powerful man in England by following both his Reason and his sense that whatever promoted Reason was for the general good. Hilary Mantel's book is important because it reminds us that the light of Reason sometimes burns.