Wolf Hall

wolf-hallHere’s a fun game: try saying the title of this novel three times out loud, quickly. Still, for an unpronounceable book, it’s done pretty well; it must be one of the most successful and talked about publications of this millennium. Like all good phenomenons, it has sparked a debate about the ‘respectability’ of historical fiction, with many claiming that what used to be a lowly genre now has literary chops, whilst historians like Anthony Beaver get to grizzle about ‘histo-tainment’ and ‘faction-creep’ as corrupting forces on the purity of proper historical writing. I’m in the camp that believes fiction creates its own kind of truth, different to that embodied by the archive, but no less powerful. For me, Mantel’s novel does a brilliant job of bringing the past up close through its unusual structural choices.

I imagine that most people know now that the novel is about the resolute rise of blacksmith’s son, Thomas Cromwell, to a position of power in the court of Henry VIII. He manages this despite the enormous setback of his mentor, the cunning and sophisticated Cardinal Wolsey, falling out of favour. It’s a salutary lesson to the young Thomas, who is more than aware how sharp his skills of diplomacy need to be if he’s to survive the shark-infested waters of regal politicking.

The issue of the day is Anne Boleyn. Henry wants to marry her – if he’s to bed Anne, she’s insisting on nothing less than a binding contract – but he unfortunately happens to be married to Katherine of Aragon, and he’s already pulled a bit of a fast one by marrying her when his brother’s death left her widowed. The main problem is that Katherine has failed to provide a son, and Henry is quite desperate for an heir. The motivation, beneath all the jostling surface reasons, is that Henry believes kings should be allowed to do anything they want. However, in this particular case, the ‘anything’ involved means turning the laws of the Catholic Church on their head and entirely rewriting England’s relationship to religious doctrine. To achieve the impossible requires a very special kind of lawyer – and so enter Cromwell, a man who has been a foot soldier in his time and has no fear of a dirty fight.

The magnificence of this novel resides in the character of Cromwell and the strange and unique way Mantel brings the reader inside his head. Cromwell is a tough man, but a fair one, intelligent but grounded, ruthless but tender. Most endearing of all is his drily ironic sense of humour which bubbles up around even the most fraught situation. You can’t help but love Cromwell because he loves his job, he genuinely admires the King, and, unlike just about everyone else around him, he never abuses his power. He has the courage of his convictions without the savagery of those who believe the end justifies the means.

The way the character is narrated is highly unusual, as the reader skips in and out of Cromwell’s head, presented with his outer tough guy image through the eyes of those around him, and then swiftly transported into his sympathetic mind and heart. There are no signs to indicate the transition, though; Mantel leaves it all to the implications of the narrative to let the reader know where s/he is, and this becomes, in the eyes of some, the problem of the unattributed ‘he’ in the text. ‘He’ mostly always refers to Cromwell, apart from the times when it doesn’t. And you’ve got to work that out for yourself. I think that Mantel adopts this almost intentionally confusing device because it makes readers keep their wits about them. As I was reading, I noticed my mind had that restless, darting quality that must characterize dangerous political times, when you have to take note of who said what, and when, and who is tugging at the hem of power. It felt to me like a very subtle way of taking us quite deeply into the mindset of Cromwell, and the shifting, tricky climate he lives in. You have to sit up and pay attention to this novel or it will run completely out of hand.

This is also true because it is a novel with a huge cast and an enormous quantity of events. As Cromwell grows in stature, so he comes into contact with the royal court, with the clergy, with the businessmen of the city, with the pretenders to the throne, with the heretics, with the powers from overseas. A vast web of relationships creates ever widening circles, and plucking a thread unleashes a chain of uncertain consequences. Cromwell is in the centre of a dangerous game of chess, with the smoking stake outside his window to remind him of the cost of losing.

As I was reading, I was surprised by what felt initially like a lack of depth to the novel. We skate precariously over the surface of so many events, barely has one finished than something else kicks off elsewhere. This happens, then this, then this… and so on. But it occurred to me as I read on that the exercise of absolute power reduces all human event to its mere surface. Henry’s great aim is to undermine the sanctity of his marriage – to claim those twenty-some years never properly happened, and to do this he must make a nonsense, not just of the passage of time, but of the religious precepts that have long been understood to be the repository of all meaning. Inconvenient people are reduced to ciphers. Life and death become of little matter, a footnote to the bulldozing sweep of power as it hacks down a path across time. But in contrast to this majestic obliterating force, Mantel offers us pockets of stubbornness in the form of the so-called heretics who are agitating for the acceptance of the bible in English. I wonder whether the success of Mantel’s novel is due in part to the historical and cultural shock that comes from reading, in our most superficial and self-centred of eras, about men and women who would die horribly for the sake of a belief. There’s something so rich and redolent of valour in this story, about an age where everything matters hugely, where change is feared and demanded, and where power, as ever, is all about being able to argue that black is white and get away with it. I’m so looking forward to Bringing Up The Bodies.

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23 thoughts on “Wolf Hall

  1. I often add books to my to-read pile after reading your reviews; as a fiction writer, with a historical novel in progress, I’m especially interested to see how Martel pulls off this unusual narrative shift. Fascinating.

  2. That’s a great point that this odd narrative strategy means we have to keep our wits about us. It does have its drawbacks, but like you, overall I found it really effective, and the novel as a whole very gripping – almost surprisingly so, considering how well I know the basic historical stuff of the plot after decades of reading (much worse, much less imaginative) Tudor fiction. One of my favorite aspects was Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey — which, in Bring Up the Bodies, continues to be an important motivation for Cromwell as his own power increases.

  3. I tried to read it on a long haul flight to NZ. You’ve explained exactly why I couldn’t. I think a chic lit might have been a more sensible choice. Am about to start Bringing Up the Bodies.

  4. I was so in love with Wolf Hall. And pronouncing it à la Française (without h), I didn’t even imagine it was a challenge to pronounce ;) When I was in Wales I wanted to buy Bringing up the bodies except that the massive volume couldn’t fit in my suitcase!

  5. I love your point about the narrative style intentionally keeping the reader on edge. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes sense. As much as I enjoyed this book, I felt unsettled much of the time I was reading it, and I think that was the right way to feel.

    And yes, so much of the novel rests on how Henry’s desires are the only ones that really matter, and other people and their needs are of little significance in comparison. It’s such a large cast of people who could have power and position in their own right, yet we see them cast aside one after another. It’s remarkable to see what that kind of power can do–and how important it is to stay on the right side of that power.

  6. I was really put off by the “problem of the unattributed ‘he’ in the text.” I found it so annoying. I finished the book but not only have I read far better (and better researched) historical fiction but plenty whoch didn’t make me have to retrack a paragraph to see which ‘he’ we might be talking about. Not only would I not recommend it but I was amazed it won. I have no problem with historical fiction winning but please let’s have a better example next time!

    • This is a wonderful, insightful review, but I totally agree with John Edwards.

      In fact, I found the book so annoying and so frustrating that just today, before I found your excellent review, I sold it at the used book store, rather than wade through it a second time, as I had originally thought I probably should.

      I know a book which wins so many prizes must have much to recommend it, but to me it was a total waste of my time — and worse, a total waste of the talent of a good writer.

      Mantel has had mental problems in the past, and to my mind, this book showed it. It truly was a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing … but I commend you for sticking with it to the bitter end and finding value in the dross.

  7. I’m very interested to read this and Bring up the Bodies. I heard a podcast of Mantel talking about Thomas Cromwell and it was fascinating. Also very glad to see you’ve got your reading and reviewing mojo back.

  8. I will read this one of these days. I have read a few negative reviews as well and that’s why I’m curious to find out for myself but seeing that you liked it, certainly makes me expect that I will too. I’m not sure what the negative reviews moaned about. But they were quite harsh.
    I remember watching the movie Sophie Scholl and thinking exactly that – how many would still die for an ideal nowadays.

  9. Oh, well, when I get to posting about the book in a few days I’m just going to link to you here :) I like how you say absolute power reduces events to the surface and life and death can become a mere footnote. In spite of his power I liked that Mantel kept Henry human–he’s a hypochondriac, superstitious, vain and rather whiny at times. It is fun to follow all the intrigue though from the safety of my own chair. I look forward to the next book though I am going to wait a little while before reading it.

  10. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to has said they liked Bringing up the Bodies better than Wolf Hall (even when they liked Wolf Hall a lot!), so I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about the sequel. I have to confess I am considering skipping straight to Bringing up the Bodies.

  11. Like Rohan and Teresa, I hadn’t thought about the shifting “he” keeping the reader on her toes, but I think you’re right.
    I think you’re right about why we skate over the surface of the novel, not getting to know certain characters, but I also think that this is because we already know them, from history, so their motivations are already well-known or already endlessly speculated upon, while the heart of the tale lies in what became of those actions, for the other characters we know less well from historical accounts.

  12. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your insightful and eloquent review. In particular, I noted this: “We skate precariously over the surface of so many events, barely has one finished than something else kicks off elsewhere. This happens, then this, then this… and so on. ” Sounds very much like a contemporary film.

    I have this book in one of the several TBR boxes. But from your review, seems like I need a long time to chew and digest, esp. that I’m a slow reader. Also, what do you think of Mantel using the present tense to write this historical fiction?

  13. Interesting to read your thoughts on this one, litlove. I’ve enjoyed a few of Mantel’s other books, like Beyond Black, but for some reason haven’t been able to face this one or its sequel. I think at some point in my formative years I suffered an overdose of Tudor England, particularly Henry VIII, and then it was reactivated a few years ago with all the hooplah over the 500-year anniversary of his accession (timed fortuitously to coincide with the publication of Wolf Hall). So I just never want to hear anything about it again. Yes, I know, great books rise above their setting, and a lot of its good points come across in your review. But something in me recoils. Irrational, but there it is. Plenty more good books to read. I enjoyed your review, anyway. Now I can bluff when anyone asks me about it ;-)

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  15. Oh, heck. My first comment got eaten. And it was so brilliant, too. Such bad luck. Pearls of wisdom scattered to dust. Quickly though, I found the present tense narrative hopelessly irritating. I think I’ll try it again this year, since I have a copy, You make it sound completely different from what I remember so there may be hope for me yet.

  16. I’ve heard good things about this one already, Litlove, and your review prompts me to pick up a copy. But I have to say the warnings about unattributed pronouns put me back a bit. Haven’t felt this sort of pushme-pullyou about a book for a while!

    Reminds me of a professor I had in college, Alan Burns, who wrote the post-World War 2 book Europe After The Rain, without proper nouns — it was all pronouns. Like reading out of the corner of your eye.

  17. The sheer size of this has made me hesitate in picking it up to read, as lately I can’t seem to focus for that long, but as I am working (slowly) on Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost (maybe even longer?) and Stefanie has told me they are set in roughly the same period and would make a good companion read. So, if I ever finish the Pears I’ll pick this up next! Of course you and Stefanie make me want to read it sooner rather than later so maybe that will keep me motivated! :)

  18. What a fabulous review, Litlove. I really enjoyed how you show why Mantel structured it the way she did. I have this on my shelf to read, and now that I have a block of free time ahead of me (recovering from surgery), I think I will try reading this now, so I can immerse myself in it. You make it sound like we the reader experience the power and the stakes that Cromwell faces, something I saw a glimpse of in The Tudors when it aired (the first two seasons, anyway). The whim of the king, and how to survive it.

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