Wolf Hall--Hilary Mantel

Well, I have to say after a very long slog, I am through Wolf Hall and am glad to have finished it. I have very mixed feelings about the book--ambitious, long, convoluted, by turns annoying and confusing, but with deep and interesting insights and speculations, thoughts about the characters and their times.

Let's start with one of the least successful aspects of the book.  I have read in other reviews and other places that her limited third person narration that amounts to a curious twist on a first person narration in which "he" much of the time refers to Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cromwell is almost always referred to as he--this literary trick is supposed to bring me into sympathy with Cromwell.  I am supposed to derive from it some sort of closeness.  Truth is, it made the book more difficult to read without offering a lot in the way of perspective or closeness.  Indeed, if anything, I found myself kicking against the goad and more often than not furious at Cromwell for the well-censored set of memories and thoughts he was presenting to me through the book.  Additionally, the few times she slipped out of this mode were curious and struck me not as a deliberate strategy but as a loss of authorial control.  There was no reason for it--it just suddenly happens and the happening did not broaden the horizons of the novel for me.  So, point one, a more or less failed experiment in narration.  That said, the failed experiment does not detract from the overall book except when it introduces the element of confusion.

Second point, why is this book called Wolf Hall? Here it strikes me as simply odd.  There were a lot of other places more significant and more central to this story.  Undeniably, Wolf Hall will be an essential part of the follow-up novel.  Wolf Hall is the ancestral home of the Seymours.  The present book focuses on Henry VIII efforts to marry Anne Boleyn and all of the intrigue around that.  It gives us the story of Henry and Anne up through their first two children.  As such it emphasizes the irony of all of the bloodshed that is to occur because of Anne Boleyn and the  King's passion for her.  But Jane Seymour shows up in a handful of scenes.  Admittedly, she is important in those scenes for reasons that I cannot say without spoiling one of the interesting side-stories of the novel.  However, it would seem to me that Austin Friars, or any number of a dozen other places might have supplied a more appropriate title.

Third, there is the problem of Thomas Cromwell himself.  Mantel spends a great deal of effort rehabilitating this notorious "villain" of Henry's reign.  Mantel comments on this herself.  And if one suspects a bit of gooey frosting on her portrait of Thomas Cromwell, one of the things she does succeed in is the careful examination of St. Thomas More.  A saint, regardless of Mantel's depiction, preferring to hew to his conscience rather than to the fashion of the time and dying for the faith, there are aspects of More's character that must be problematic even to the most hagiophilic amongst us.  (Personally, I have never cared for the attitude and treatment of those he deemed "heretics.")  And here we have a view from a contemporary--one not so much better, and in some things a good deal worse (Cromwell's exceedingly flexible conscience and loyalty may have kept him alive, but they are hardly admirable except as survival tactics.)  Mantel is undoubtedly informed about Cromwell, but much of her information, as she admits herself is speculation, and it is upon this speculation that she builds her new Cromwell.  And frankly, her new Cromwell, while exhibiting some interesting characteristics, and certainly presenting a more human and humane man, still gives us an image of an implacably brutal, sometimes self-aggrandizing individual. A line near the end of the book clearly summarizes his approach to Thomas More, and undermines Mantel's attempts to exonerate him. On the same topic, there is this passage referring to the Holy Maid:

from Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

"I want it over with now," he says. "For all the trouble she has caused, we do not find ourselves an edifying spectacle, three or four of us learned in the law and scriptures convening day after day to try to trip one chit of a girl."

"Why did you not bring her in before?"

"I didn't want her to shut the prophecy shop. I wanted to see who would come to her whistle. And Lacy Exeter has, and Bishop Fisher. And a score of monks and foolish priests whose names I know and hundred perhaps whose names I don't know yet."

"And will the kind kill them all?"

"Very few, I hope."

"You incline him to mercy?"

"I incline him to patience."

"What will happen to her? Dame Eliza?"

"We will frame charges."

"She will not go in a dungeon?"

"No, I shall move the king toi treat her with consideration, he is always--he is usually--respectful of any person in religious life."

And so it goes.  Cromwell advances over the bodies of expedient sacrifices he prepares for the King.  This Holy Maid, while a dupe and a liar, was of no threat to the realm, but Cromwell could conjure one from her "prophecies" and so further his own ends.

In the end, I am divided by the book.  It took far more effort to read than it repaid in revelation and understanding.  There were interesting insights and a passable recreation of the times (although even here, I have read better).  The rehabilitation of Cromwell at the expense of other historical figures is a somewhat dubious effort all round.  However, Mantel does do this plausibly.

In sum, my recommendation would be to die-hard Tudor fans, literary award winners, and those who want to read an interesting literary experiment.  But ultimately, I think, this may prove more frustrating than entertaining for many readers. For most I would recommend choosing one of the other more highly rated books in the side column of this blog, or any other blog the value of which you have come to trust.

***1/2

Comments

  1. Amen, amen, amen! I think Martel called it Wolf Hall so the men-folk would know there wouldn't be any lady-issues in it and it was therefore safe to read. ;)

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  2. Dear Connie,

    And it would be a great mistake to think that it was free from lady-issues, as the whole book is one long sequence of lady-issues from Katharine and Anne Boleyn to the Holy Maid. The plethora of Marys and Annes and Janes is simply mid-boggling. And it is the first book outside of a Russian novel where I've need a score-card to keep track of the players. Now, who exactly is Jane Rochford and what is her interest in all of this. Norfolk, Suffolk? eh?

    Thanks for stopping by.

    shalom,

    Steven

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  3. WOLF HALL is brilliant in every way. Hilary Mantel's extraordinary book takes us into the mind and heart of Thomas Cromwell [1485-1540], one of the greatest statesmen of the era of Henry VIII and an architect of the idea of the modern administrative state. Mantel, one of our best writers, has an amazingly versatile writing style, which she uses with dazzling skill. Her command of the period is first-rate (in fact, the one quibble that I thought I had went away after I read her "author's note" at the book's close). Her book is a work of art very much like the ultra-detailed paintings of the English and Northern European Renaissance, dazzling both as a whole and point-by-point.

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  4. This is a terrific read whether or not you have an interest in the history of England. If you have an interest in the political and social history of England, you will love this book. Thomas Cromwell seems to sit by you as you read. He presents as a glorious man to spend time with, to emulate, and to long for the return of public servants like him.

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