Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I was supposed to write another footnote for Where Angels Fear to Tread. But then I also wanted to review Wolf Hall before I forgot everything I had to say about it, and before A Victorian Celebration takes off for real next week. Wolf Hall won, so you get this lengthy review today. 

Reading Expectations & Reality

Let me begin by saying that, before starting to read, I wanted both to love this book and to hate it. I wanted to love it because I had heard good stuff about it from people I like and because "hello, new favorite!" is pretty much my favorite thing to say.  I wanted to hate it because I had heard bad stuff about it from other people I like - Alexis among them - and because part of me always longs to say, "I knew this book couldn't be that good!" about popular books of the day. (Yes, now that you ask, my personality is best described as a cross between squeeing fangirl and crotchety old lady.)

Convoluted reading aspirations aside, I had mixed feelings about Wolf Hall up to the very end. This book centered on a period I like (because I have an interest in pre-18th century stuff), but don't know that much about (because my interest fades the closer you get to the 1500s). Still, what I knew made it a little hard for me to suspend disbelief in the first half of the book. I kept thinking that something is not right about the way they speak, that some phrases are too modern. It wasn't anything obvious, more an undercurrent, the hint that Mantel's dialogue and the language I knew from the texts were informed by different sensibilities. I had the constant urge to run things through Google Books and see if they were really used like that in that period (not that it would have helped much, since the written and spoken usages could well be different). 

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors. You can learn a ton about this period just by reading up on this one picture

I will count this as a fault of the book, even if the language were accurate. I think what's essential in this context is selling a compelling illusion of the early 16th century rather than the real thing. You want the reader to be drawn in to the exclusion of all questions about etymology and anachronisms. You want them to question your words as little as they question the existence of dragons in your fictional world. This didn't come through for me in the first half of Wolf Hall, even though it did get better in the second. (Or perhaps I just got used to it, I don't know.)

Dialogue was the first obstacle in my getting immersed in this book and it took me a good 200 pages to overcome it. The second was the exclusive use of the present tense. Wolf Hall narrates the period from 1500 to 1535 through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, chronicling his rise to power at Henry VIII's court. A lot of things happen in this span of time, from Henry's divorcing Catherine to his marrying Anne Boleyn, from Anne's failure to produce a male heir to Henry's Act of Supremacy. All of them are filtered through the perpetual present of Thomas Cromwell's gaze, together with the more mundane details of his life.

It was a bit disconcerting at first, but it paid off. At times it almost managed to evoke that feeling of being there that old texts give you. It also worked surprisingly well in portraying grief. The death of Cromwell's wife and its aftermath manage to be touching without being mawkish, and I think large part of this effect was owed to the use of the present tense. And of course, it also contributed to beautiful passages, such as this one, presenting Cardinal Wolsey's fall from grace:
They take down the tapestries and leave the bare blank walls. They are rolled up, the woollen monarchs, Solomon and Sheba; as they are brought into coiled proximity, their eyes are filled by each other, and their tiny lungs breathe in the fibre of bellies and thighs. Down come the cardinal's hunting scenes, the scenes of secular pleasure: the sportive peasants splashing in ponds, the stags at bay, the hounds in cry, the spaniels held on leashes of silk and the mastiffs with their collars of spikes: the huntsmen with their studded belts and knives, the ladies on horseback with jaunty caps, the rush-fringed pond, the mild sheep at pasture, and the bluish feathered treetops, running away into a long plumed distance, to a scene of chalky bluffs and a white sailing sky.
[As an aside, this type of enumeration seems to always work for Mantel. Because she.can.write.]

Where this technique was a gamble was in two main areas. First of all, in building the characters and especially Cromwell. It can be challenging to get a sense of the man holding the camera, so to speak, especially when shiftiness is basically in his job's description.  It is even more challenging to create a meaningful narrative out of the flow of one man's life. I had my doubts throughout the book, but I think that Mantel ultimately pulled it off. 

On the Characters

I thought Cromwell's character was very smartly built. On one hand, he is - and has to be - the opportunistic politician par excellence: "deferential, glad to be of use, politic, cautious, and meticulous". Thomas More calls him "an Italian through and through" and that's saying something if you consider the political culture of Italy at the time, from Machiavelli to the Vatican, through the Medici family. Cromwell changes alliances and opinions in this book, and there's more than a hint of him being involved in brutal activities behind the scenes. How to present this without encouraging the readers to pass moral judgment on the character and be reluctant to identify with his point of view? 

Cromwell's portrait by Hans Holbein

Mantel's strategy is twofold. On one hand, she takes a lot of care in depicting Cromwell's personal life, from his growing up with an abusive father to his attachment to his own family. Not only that this provides a background for some of his actions, but it also makes him look good in a world where very few men seem to be the type of benevolent patriarch Cromwell is. The king and Thomas More, for example, are both awful husbands and bad fathers. But beyond this, Cromwell is generally more humane than most other characters in the book. (Then again, if the other contestants are Henry VIII and Thomas More, the bar is set quite low.) You tend to side with Cromwell when he values people over ideas, when he is kind to others (even if he derives benefits from it), when he is reasonably fair towards women in a very misogynistic world.

That is not to say that Cromwell doesn't change throughout the book. In fact, this has been one of the most pleasant surprises I had reading the second half. You can see the change in Cromwell compared to the beginning, despite being confined to his point of view. It is not spelled out, but it is there. You can see it in the way his romantic interactions with women decline. You can see it in his words and actions. In the first half of the book, Cromwell dislikes torture and those who practice it, and is very affable even with his enemies. These two together make him very unlikely to go around threatening to hang people by their wrists. But that starts creeping in in his speech after he gains power. Thomas More notices it too:
This relentless bonhomie of yours. I knew it would wear out in the end. It is a coin that has changed hands so often. And now the small silver is worn out, and we see the base metal.

On Meaning

So, reasonably likable main character, good writing, the chance to see old favorites in action (hi there, Hans Holbein, you paint the pretty!) ... is that all there is to it? Don't get me wrong, good writing alone would have made this one hell of a book. But I kept waiting for something to round it all off (which might not be wise to expect out of the first book in a trilogy, but well...). And I got that at the very end. It was a paragraph on the last page that won me over:
But the trouble is, maps are always last year's. England is always remaking herself, her cliffs eroding, her sandbanks drifting, springs bubbling up in dead ground. They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move, and even the histories that trail us; the faces of the dead fade into other faces, as a spine of hills into the mist.
Why did this do it for me, while this other paragraph quoted below did not?
He knows different now. It's the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.
They both make a statement about history and about this book. But the first I find to be closer to the spirit of both that period and this book. It speaks of an age of uncertainty, which the 16th century was. (Imagine your world literally changing - science, religion, geography, everything.) It speaks of finding history both relative and to an extent fictional. It speaks of the decision to use the present tense, to gather these images that fade into each other, the multitude of names that one can barely keep track of, to weave together the personal and the political - because that's how history works.

My Favorite Quote

After they get up from the table his guests eat ginger comfits and candied fruits, and Kratzer makes some drawings. He draws the sun and the planets moving in their orbits according to the plan he has heard of from Father Copernicus. He shows how the world is turning on its axis, and nobody in the room denies it. Under your feet you can feel the tug and heft of it, the rocks groaning to tear away from their beds, the oceans tilting and slapping at their shores, the giddy lurch of Alpine passes, the forests of Germany ripping at their roots to be free. The world is not what it was when he and Vaughan were young, it is not what it was even in the cardinal's day.

The Bottom Line

I was won over by this book. I started out with some doubts, but the book itself and especially that one paragraph about history and fiction laid them to rest. It will not be one of my absolute favorites, but I very much like and admire this book. 4 out of 5 stars. And Bring Up the Bodies next. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm a Wolf Hall lover, but I also had some trouble with the language used. I admire any writer that makes you fall in love with Thomas Cromwell!
    Bring Up the Bodies was tremendous too...I'm still pondering my review for it...