Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

March 3, 2010 | No Comments

Provided you have focus, stamina, a smattering of knowledge about Tudor England and a tolerance for wandering pronouns, Wolf Hall is a smashing read. Hillary Mantel’s Mann-Booker prize winner about Thomas Cromwell weighs in at 532 pages and boasts a populous cast –most of whom are called Mary, Henry, Thomas or John – while covering a mere eight years in the life of Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor.

Much of the novel’s power stems from Mantel’s Cromwell, who runs counter to his popular historical role as evil incarnate. He is portrayed as a private, humorous, wily, empathetic man, a consummate bureaucrat and devoted husband and father, both charming and ruthless (a perfect role for Robert Downey Jr. when they make the movie, which they will….) – a Machiavellian with a heart of gold. “It is no use to justify yourself,” he states, when he hears rumors pertaining to the evils he is supposed to have done, “It is weak to be anecdotal… It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pore their fears, fantasies, desires.” He accepts his ruthless reputation and rather than counter it, he exploits it. He is, above, all, pragmatic. When Harry Percy, Anne Boleyn’s inconvenient betrothed, pleads for Cromwell to intercede with Henry, Cromwell reminds him that it is not armies Percy should fear, but bankers. “You are a man whose money is almost spent. I am a man who knows how you have spent it. You are a man who has borrowed all over Europe. I am a man who knows all your creditors…The world is run from Antwerp,” he continues, “from Florence, from places (Percy) has never imagined….not from castle walls , but from counting-houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus..” Wisely, Percy steps aside. Cromwell’s pragmatism extends to his view of his liege Lord. He serves a King willing to risk war over a wench because, “If he were a model of conduct in his private life, one would be … surprised, but for me, you see, I can only concern myself with his kingship. If he were oppressive, if he were to override parliament, if he were to pay no heed to the commons and govern only for himself…. But he does not… so I cannot concern myself with how he behaves to his women.” Cromwell’s loyalty, Mantel argues, lay not with his King but with his country.

A prior knowledge of Tudor Times is almost essential for Wolf Hall. Without having seen Anne of a Thousand Days or A Man for All Seasons or spending a childhood in the company of Bette, Glenda, Helen and the BBC, I’d have been lost. The narrative unfolds at a breezy pace using language that manages to feel both historically appropriate and snappily modern, dense with event and details. The banishing of Wolsey, the side-lining of More, the birth of Elizabeth, glimpses of future royal wives, are given the same weight as a badly managed witch-burning or a bilious attack of ague; we see the world through Cromwell’s eyes and he had no way of knowing that some of his bureaucratic fandanglings would turn out to be so much more than business-as-usual. This is exactly as it should be given the novel’s present tense structure, but for the reader new to Tudor times, who may not ‘get’ that some seemingly minor twists and turns of plot transformed England and resulted in the Britain we have now, the larger cultural and political impact of the book may be lost.

So, about that wandering pronoun… Mantel tells Cromwell’s story in close third person not first person. Rather than consistently employ what the critic James Wood termed as ‘free indirect style,’ Mantel bends the rules of grammar and refers to Cromwell most frequently as “he”, even if such usage could result in confusion, for example in scenes where more than one male character is present:

“And you have a son,” the cardinal says…

“I hope not. I wasn’t fifteen when I ran away.”

It amuses Wolsey that he (Cromwell) doesn’t know his (Cromwell’s) age. The cardinal peers through the layers of society, to a stratum well below his (the Cardinal’s) own, as the butcher’s beef-fed son; to a place where his (the Cardinal’s) servant is born, on a day unknown, in deep obscurity. His (Cromwell’s) father was no doubt drunk at his birth; his mother, understandably, was preoccupied…

I’m not a grammar snob; I’m happy to tolerate some dodgy craft if it serves the story, but I’m not entirely sure what benefit Mantel gained by not substituting a few more pronouns with proper names. If you read the book in fits and starts, as I was forced to do, one often stutters to a halt and must rewind to the beginning of a scene or a paragraph, in order to understand who is saying, thinking, and doing. Nevertheless, I forgive her because overall this book is so damned good.