Book review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2009

Mantel’s Wolf Hall takes place at the cusp of the Reformation in London c. 1520. It is cleverly narrated from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell (consecutively and/or concurrently Court advisor, Privy Seal, the Garter, Vicar General, earldom of Essex and Lord Chamberlain.) The author artfully reinvents this historically maligned character into a formidable and ambitious advocate with a droll wit and very touching human side (‘With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep.’) She relates his abused childhood and how his early mercenary activity in continental Europe brings him to his opening chapter anima as advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. He is present at Wolsey’s decline and afterwards ingratiates himself to his monarch Henry Tudor to ensure his political and vocational survival.

There is one complaint about this book which must be disposed of from the outset and that is the author’s application of a pronoun without clear identification of which character is in play. Writing in the limited third person present is adventurous in its own right without adding confusion, namely the reader’s befuddlement with the pronoun ‘he’ during a scene where more than one male is either present or under discussion. To identify which ‘he’ the author is referring to, the reader has to either stop and conduct a mental examination; read back with the hope that clarification is reached; read forward until all is hopefully revealed.

The latter became my personal preference until I became accustomed to the style when about half way through. But it is a big book and it took great perseverance for me to continue to that stage, and I wondered how many exasperated others lost the patience to continue to the final page. The Man Booker people obviously gave weight to this technique as it is indeed a novel departure. My writing and editing teachers would hand such copy back to me with critic commentary reinforcing the rubric on my manuscript. Opinion aside, the author’s greatest sin lies in writing a book that makes it difficult for a reader to read.

Mantel’s innovations continue however with better effect. Interestingly, Thomas More is revealed here by the opposite camp which casts him in a contradictory light to what he has been portrayed historically – indeed the pro-Reformation case is convincingly presented until even this Catholic-educated reader was swayed on the subject. Anne Boleyn and the other players also receive creative treatment at the authors hand to very good effect. But while the cast are a strong part of the story the most attractive aspect is in Mantel’s writing. She has a beautiful expression that evokes mood, time and place. Her language is easy and clear but it must have taken meticulous crafting to make 16th century English seem so natural to third millennium eyes. The writing takes the reader into each scene, where he or she can sit inconspicuously in the corner and study the ornate ceiling or the ladies fashions while listening to the narrated conversation. Some examples:

  • On one of Cromwell’s night walks in London: ‘Midnight: stone exhales a mossy breath, flagstones are slippery with the city’s exhalations.’
  • Or on the opening of Parliament: ‘There is a chill in the air; the summer birds have flown and black-winged lawyers are gathering for their new term…’
  • And the insightful: ‘When a woman withdraws to give birth the sun may be shining but the shutters of her room are closed so she can make her own weather’.

How brilliant is that? The book is laced with similar artistic articulation and this is where Mantel is truly worthy of the accolades she receives.

The Wolf Hall of the title refers to the seat of the Seymour family – of Jane fame. It receives at most two casual mentions throughout the entire book and is not central to anything that arises therein. In the final lines of the book, Wolf Hall becomes a casually planned stopover for Cromwell on his way to joining his monarch on a hunting holiday. To those familiar with the annals, it foreshadows Henry’s next wife. To foreign readers, or readers foreign to detail, it means nothing. To the cynic it could be viewed with the knowledge that the sequel is currently being written and the title represents advance publicity. Or perhaps it’s just more Mantel alchemy – but where does literary licence end and reader disorientation begin?


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