Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall was the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize, probably the most prestigious award for novels in the English speaking world. Unlike many winners of the award, it is not a dauntingly challenging work, demanding dedication and concentration from the reader. Wolf Hall, though a book of 650 pages, is acccessible and readily enjoyable, whilst being intelligent and stimulating.

It is an historical novel, set in one of the most colourful and dramatic periods of English history, the years 1529 to 1536 during which Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, and during which the English Church broke with Rome. The cast is a large one, though rarely confusing, and a very wide range of social settings and types of people appear. But at the centre is Thomas Cromwell, a man of humble origins who rose during this period to be the king's most trusted adviser, and the possessor of great wealth and influence. The novel is recounted in the third person, and usually in the present tense, and we encounter Cromwell in a wide variety of situations, and intereacting with everyone from the king to labourers and people on the fringes of society.

Mantel creates an attractive Cromwell. He is a man of affairs and no otherworldly saint, but he is a loyal servant first of Cardinal Wolsey and then of the king, a good friend, an often compaasionate opponent, a devoted family man, generous to the underdog. He is the most competent of men, a lawyer, administrator, and financial manager of immense skill, a competent linguist in several languages, but also able to turn his hand to cooking a splendid dinner or shoeing a horse. Perhaps as a central figure Cromwell is a bit too perfect, but Mantel is very skillful in making a somewhat unlikely hero attactive to the reader.

Mantel's skill in evoking early Tudor England is immense. She clearly has done extensive reaearch, but her learning is worn lightly, and the world she creates is fascinating, vivid, and convincing. There is no sense of anachronism: one does not have the sense here, as often with historical novels, that some of the characters have twentieth or twenty-first century mindsets inside clothing from centuries past. The language is modern but not jarringly so: the reader is not challenged by any of 'ye olde Englishe speeche'. It is, however, not always easy to know who is speaking. Mantel avoids guidelines of the 'Cromwell replied' kind. The reader will probably find it useful to assume that he' normally means Cromwell.

Modern attitudes to Thomas Cromwell have probably been shaped in large part by Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, which commenced life as a radio play in 1954 but is better known in the 1960 stage version and the 1966 film. In Bolt's work Cromwell is an unscrupulous and ruthless opportunist who contrasts with Thomas More, the saintly martyr for freedom of conscience. There is evidence (including an interview available on YouTube) that Mantel set delibertely about presenting a diametrically opposite view. Her Cromwell is clearly a true 'man for all seasons'; her More, though achieving a certain dignity as his end (which is also the end of the book) approaches, is a shabby, mean-spirited, cruel, religious fanatic. He is probably the closest thing to a villain in Wolf Hall , which generally allows its characters to speak for themselves, and to engender in us some sympathy for their situation and point of view.

It has been suggested that Mantel uses the freedom of the novelist to shed new light on the history of the period, but her work is of course not history, and leading Tudor historian David Starkey has described it as 'tosh'. Certainly not all historians views Cromwell so sympathetically. Past generations admired him as an important creator of the early modern English administrative system and as a man who did much to make England Protestant, but more recently he has been widely viewed as vicious, unscrupulous and cruel, and outraqesously avaricious.

Mantel is said to be working on a follow-up novel dealing with the remaining years of Cromwell's career (which of course ended on the executioner's block, like that of so many who served Henry VIII). This reader looks forward to it with eager anticipation.


Faye said...

Your review of 'Wolf Hall" is most enticing - I would definitely want to read it if I hadnt already. Like you I am looking forward also to her follow on. It is of note that we dont actually get to hear of or discuss Wolf Hall (Jane Seymours family home) until the very end - in fact it is the very last 2 words in this 650 page turner - so why did Mantel call this one Wolf Hall . I think it is obvious that the craftswoman here has got us well and truly intrigued and teased because she is so smart a novelist as well as very engaging as a writer.

I found the characterisations of Anne Bolyen and Thomas the best drawn in the book - and the discussions and encounters between the two of them as great stuff . All the more worth noting about because they dont seem like modern day Tudor characters. They come across and as real but of their time . I think this is partly because the author has provided such wonderful scenic detail for us about the time - both re the big political events and the simpler social and home centred ones.

Overall I find I am not so woried about the debate on the historical conclusions she has drawn re Cromwell - I accept it is fiction overall. For instance I understand that for all the State Records Cromwell was responsible for creating - he left no personal diaries, letters etc. Deliberate probably on his part. Mantel has shown him to be a "man for all seasons" as you say and in this she is as convincing in her portrait as any good novelist might be , i suppose , with his/her main character.

I am sure the debate on the boundaries of historical fiction will go on whilst soever there are books as good as this to set us all thinking and talking it over.

On the domestic human affairs front - the tragic detail re life and death were very touching - there was so much in these various stories which added to the strength of this book.

Thanks for a great review and keen incites. I hope other pick it up as a result.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. Yes, I think this is an example of very good historical fiction. Too often one has the impression that the main characters in historical novels are modern men and women wearing doublet and hose, crinolines, or hwatever. The hero or heroine actually believes in gender equality, religious tolerance and democracy, and is detached from the world around him or her. Mantel does not fall into this trap: her people have convincingly Tudor attitudes.

It is interesting that she calls the novel 'Wolf Hall', that being the name of the Seymour family home I suspect you are right in suggesting that she is preparing the ground for further development, but perhaps too we are meant to see something wolfish in the world she creates (though clearly Cromwell's own home is the reverse of wolfish).

Last night the 1966 film of 'A Man for All Seasons' was shown very late on ABC television, and without planning to I stayed up to watch it. For me it enforced the idea that Mantel was in part writing a response to the play. In the play More is a very attractive and siantly figure; Cromwell, memorably played by Leo McKern, is definitely the main antagonist, far more so than the king, who really has only one significant scene. Behind a transparent veneer of urbanity Cromwell really is utterly unsaintly - basically a man without scruple and without conscience.

Italia said...

Wolf Hall, the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize, is a huge commitment, but the return on that investment is in a multiplicity of pleasures. There is the language - that alone would make the book worthwhile, but Mantel is not content to settle for beautiful language; she also offers an intricate plot, rich and deeply imagined characters, and an ornate historical setting.

At the novel's center is Thomas Cromwell, like the spider in his web. Like the spider Mantel's Cromwell personifies duality, both deadly and beneficial - his ruthless pragmatism the thread that unites all the pieces of the design.

The Tudors are a perennial favorite. Who doesn't love Henry VIII and his women (headless or otherwise)? Yet there are other stories to be told from the time and Cromwell is a wonderful choice. He is in many ways a most modern gentleman - an ultra-competent lawyer and financial administrator, arguably the father of modern government. I've always admired Cromwell - his practicality appeals and it certainly shines in this depiction. I've never understood the fascination with Saint Thomas More, the vaunted man for all seasons (where all seasons are for burning heretics) with his unlivable Utopia. If we must talk of government give me someone who can create order out of chaos and spin gold out of hay. I guess I've always rooted for Rumpelstiltskin. Cromwell gazes at us out of his Holbein portrait, looking "like a murderer," surrounded by his tools of office, caught between tasks for his King. Wolsey's protégé, Cromwell is the man who severed England's ties with the Catholic Church and got Henry his divorce from Katherine and wedding to Anne Boleyn