cover image The Life of Thomas More

The Life of Thomas More

Peter Ackroyd. Doubleday Books, $30 (464pp) ISBN 978-0-385-47709-3

According to Ackroyd (Blake; Hawksmoor), More ""embodied the old order of hierarchy and authority at the very moment when it began to collapse all around him."" Symbolizing that collapse was Henry VIII's defiance of the pope in the ""great matter"" of his much-desired divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Refusing to compromise with the break from Rome, More willed his own death. He dies well in Ackroyd's narrative, but he does not live a life as saintly as he leaves it, piously amassing wealth and power, piously writing philosophical works as ambiguous as Utopia and as scatological as Responsio, piously harassing religious reformers and smugly condemning them to the stake. As a biographer of More (the first since 1984), Ackroyd is also an effective novelist. He evokes late-medieval London in sight and in smell; sends More on his workaholic schedule of legal, political, diplomatic and courtly activities; exploits familial and hagiographic anecdotes for their story values; and repeats unscholarly untruths (as Luther's cloacal epiphanies) because fiction can be more colorful than fact. Only Henry VIII in Ackroyd's large cast fails to be realized in the round, but the king, recognizing More's loyal services, does ""graciously"" reduce his sentence from disemboweling to beheading. After an awkward, conditional start (""But it might be more fruitful to recognise... ""/ ""...but it might be worth rehearsing certain of its aspects... ""/ ""It has in the past been noticed... ""), Ackroyd's clotted language metamorphoses into elegant English, and the nobility of More's demise will move readers who persist to the end. 27 b&w illustrations not seen by PW. BOMC, History Book Club and QPB selections. (Nov.)