Wolf Hall

wolf hallI put off reading Wolf Hall for four years. I had good reasons. First, everyone was reading it, and it was so hyped it couldn’t possibly be any good. (Right? You get that, right? Massively hyped contemporary literature can turn out to be distressingly bad. I name no names but you know what I mean.) Second, it won the Rollings Reliable Man Booker Prize, and just between you me and the teapot, I find that prize to be a wee smidgen hit or miss. Third, it’s about the politics and internal drama of the English Reformation. They were never going to get that right, they never do. They always modernize the women and downplay the religion and what’s the point of visiting the past if it’s going to look like the present? Fourth, I heard it tried too hard to be “difficult,” using only a pronoun for Cromwell. Fakey-shakey literariness that only results in obscurity is not my style.

Four years. Four years I wasted, when I could have been gloating over this marvelous, insightful, fascinating, beautiful book.

Mantel starts with a little of Cromwell’s background as the son of a viciously abusive blacksmith. We get more hints later: travels, soldiering, work as an accountant, anything to escape his early life. Now he’s Cardinal Wolsey’s man, and Wolsey (who came from humble roots himself) is King Henry’s most trusted advisor. Ambitious Cromwell! But Henry, married for twenty years to Catherine of Aragon, has fallen head over heels in love with Anne Boleyn, and Anne is ambitious too. (Catherine is no slouch, either. She has no intention of letting go of her marriage with any grace. Well, would you?) Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from favor is sudden and brutal. If he’d been a nobleman, it might have been better cushioned, but his obscure background made it easier to be rid of him. A life lesson for Cromwell, who never skates on anything other than thin ice in this book. Cromwell’s job is to do what the king wants: obtain a divorce, write new and brilliant legislation, get everyone to agree with him, apply pressure on the pressure points. He’s not a bad man; in fact, in many ways he’s generous, kind, educated, and thoughtful. But he knows how to ask so he gets a yes.

The genius of this book — or one of them, since there are many — is that we see everything through Cromwell’s lens. I’ve read my history, and I’ve seen A Man for All Seasons; there are many ways to understand the highly-principled behavior of Thomas More. Here, though, we understand it the way Cromwell does. Why doesn’t More simply obey the King, as his subject? They’ve made it so easy for him to do so. All he has to do is agree. Cromwell, who is a go-along-to-get-along sort of person, boils with impatience at More’s excess of piety, for whose sake he will not spare his wife or his daughters. When it comes to More’s final sacrifice, Cromwell has little sympathy, and we see his point, because we’ve seen the entire scenario through his eyes. It’s the same with Cromwell’s care to make a friend of Anne Boleyn: whatever he may think of her personally, or of the divorce, he keeps it well under wraps. His job is to keep her happy, and thereby the King.

Mantel portrays Cromwell as a man who takes advantage of others’ perception of him. He goes from strength to strength — survives the fall of Wolsey — partly on his real abilities, and partly on others’ notions that he is more pitiless than he has ever had occasion to be.

Sometimes, when Chapuys has finished digging up Walter’s bones and making his own life unfamiliar to him, he feels almost impelled to speak in defense of his father, his childhood. But it is no use to justify yourself It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

Mantel never forgets the complexities of politics and religion. The Reformation oozes in around the corners, like water: in law, in rumor, in conversation, in everyday life, by means of people calling out “Hocus Pocus” during mass as much as by Tyndale’s Bible, by means of storytelling and careful pregnancies and inheritance and concern about incest and changing the name of the Pope to the Bishop of Rome. But she also tells us about the heart-catching details of everyday life that would be the same whether England were reformed or not: when Cromwell weeps at the bedside of his dead daughter, when he tries to give his son a better life than he had himself, when he helps a friend out of a scrape, when he looks at an unflattering portrait of himself and wonders how true to life it might be, when he sits down to eat with friends or with enemies.

I read so many (so many!) people who seemed to find Mantel’s style impossible. I saw her use of punctuation trashed, and the thing about using “he” instead of Cromwell appeared to be almost insuperable for a lot of people. I just. do. not. get this particular criticism. I found the book gripping literally from the first page, and while I won’t say it was unputdownable (I actually put it down a lot, like a normal person) it was exciting and very suspenseful, especially considering that it’s history and I knew what would happen. The style was not just readable — I never noticed an issue with punctuation or pronouns, and the “he” vs. Cromwell thing was clear every time it needed to be — it was beautiful.

Near the end, Mantel turns delicately on herself as author of historical fiction (as she does at various times during the book.) This is our reason for reading, this is our reason for writing:

When he was a small child, six years old or about that, his father’s apprentice had been making nails from the scrap pile: just common old flat-heads, he’d said, for fastening coffin lids. The nail rods glowed in the fire, a lively orange. “What for do we nail down the dead?”

The boy barely paused, tapping out each head with two neat strokes. “It’s so the horrible old buggers don’t spring out and chase us.”

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.

Bring up the bodies, indeed.

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43 Responses to Wolf Hall

  1. gaskella says:

    Lovely review. I too have put off reading this book since it was published. I know I should just get on with it. I seem to have an inbuilt resentment against the time needed to invest in such a novel, thick as it is. I should make this my year of the chunkster – and add The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, The Childrens Book and more literary 500+pp to my reading list – all sit on my shelves waiting their chance!

    • Jenny says:

      I never seem to mind the length of books like this — I read chunksters fairly regularly. It’s apparently contemporary fiction I have a problem with. But this one was just wonderful. Often I rely on Teresa to tell me what’s good — she reads more adventurously than I do and knows her stuff!

      • Teresa says:

        It’s funny to see you refer to me as the more adventurous reader. When we met I had the same impression of you, because back then I was mostly reading highly regarded classics or the same old favorites again and again. Not at all adventurous. But you read lots of new and unfamiliar (to me) books. So I learned to branch out from you–and I guess I kept branching out!

      • Jenny says:

        I guess I mean you read more adventurously in contemporary literature. I don’t keep up with the contemporary publishing scene at all, and you are much more tuned into it and always seem to be on top of what is being published both by favorite authors and by new people! I love hearing it from you! The other thing that’s really fun that our taste coincides so perfectly and yet we are almost never reading the same thing.

  2. I have an e-copy and a real copy of this and just – couldn’t – bring – myself – to – start – either, for all the reasons you name (*minus* the one about the Reformation – about which I wouldn’t recognize inaccuracy if it ran up and bit me – but *plus* it looked so big.) But 2014 must now be the year I overcome my fear – thank you Jenny!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, you’ll love it. I never found it dull, not once, because it’s just so thrillingly human all the time. Even the politics. Especially the politics. It earns its length, in my view.

  3. I’ve also been putting this off! I started reading it a couple of years ago, got 100 pages in, then abandoned it as I had too much else going on at the time and I’d just read another book about Tudor times and was all Tudored-out. Maybe this will be the year I revisit it!

    • Jenny says:

      I seem to have dodged a bullet by not reading the vast wave of Tudor literature out there. This is the only one I’ve read and it was well worth it.

  4. Steph says:

    I know this book is much loved, but I have avoided reading it because I think the writing would really have to be something phenomenal in order for this to appeal to me. I don’t have a natural affinity for historical novels, nor any special interest in English history or the Tudors, so the whole premise of this book just doesn’t intrigue me in any way and doesn’t speak to any of my vices. I don’t mind historical fiction, but I suppose I more prefer books that are of an era than about a specific time, if that makes any sense at all. I think that this might be one of those books that may very well be brilliant but still not for me, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it!

    • Jenny says:

      I love historical novels when they’re really good, let’s put it that way. Some of my very favorite novels of all time happen to be historical novels, but it’s not because I love the genre in general. This was terrific as a novel, just great in and of itself.

  5. gotonation says:

    Oh Jenny, you hit the nail on the head, as you so often do. I am reading Wolf Hall after the VERY same reaction to your opening comments combined with the pronoun problem and a desire for bit of editing….still, MUST read both books by Feb 6th so that I can see Ben Miles work his magic in Stratford. You have inspired me to get on with it. My own personal problem is that I am off the Tudors, presently, after a long and loving 3 years, stewing in the Cousin’s War…so much more interesting that Ann B…..yet again. Your review made me laugh out loud and get out of my way. I am so grateful for your insights….onward.

    PS Mark Rylance will made the mini series for PBS….and be still my heart.

    • Jenny says:

      Again, I seem to have missed the wave of Tudorship! This was quite fresh for me, and perhaps I got lucky in that way. But I think Mantel would present it freshly no matter what you felt about the time period. I hope you love this!

  6. Lisa says:

    I also admit to a bit of over-hype wariness, and reviews of the second book mentioned some “enhanced interrogation” scenes that moved the books a bit further down on my list. You’ve moved this one at least straight back up!

    • Jenny says:

      I’ll let you know about Bring Up the Bodies, never fear. But this one was so good that there’s no way I’m missing out on it. And don’t fear over-hype in this case. In fact, I think that with all the fuss about style, it might have gotten a little under-hyped.

  7. Rohan says:

    Excellent review. I too do not get the issue with her style: very occasionally, the pronoun issue causes a bit of awkwardness, but like you, I was riveted from page 1. I began it as a skeptic, too, partly because I’ve read a LOT of not very good Tudor fiction and I just didn’t know enough about Mantel to know she was going to do something completely beyond all that schlock.

    • Jenny says:

      What is all this bad Tudor fiction I’m missing out on? Is it Philippa what’s-her-name? Anyway, I didn’t know Mantel from a hole in the ground, either, and as I said, the Booker is no guarantee of anything. But this was what I think of as a prize-winning novel. It told me more about the human heart, and that’s why I read.

  8. Samantha says:

    This is one of the books that I KNOW would be good but that I’ve voluntarily decided never to read. Sigh – it’s particularly disappointing to have made that choice whenever I read a glowing review like this one! As a scholar of the English Reformation, I’m unwilling to get a fictional account in my head and risk mistaking a literary invention for fact. Even though it sounds like Mantel gets a lot right. Are you planning to read the sequels? (There are sequels, right?)

    • Jenny says:

      Oh! Samantha, my father is a scholar of the English Reformation also, and has taught church history for many years (just retired.) I had absolutely no expectation that he would either read this book or enjoy it if he did — he won’t read things like the Brother Cadfael mysteries because all he can see is the flaws. He shocked me by reading this and loving it. He says that while it’s not completely perfect, its flaws are resolved because we see everything through Cromwell’s eyes, and you can attribute it to that perspective.

      And yes, I am certainly planning to read the others! Only one has come out so far.

      • Samantha says:

        Well with you and him both recommending, perhaps it’s time to give it a try! I’m really curious to know if I might have read anything by your father…

  9. Alex says:

    It’s always so great to read enthusiastic reviews of favorite books! I also loved it, and like you, I found her writing very refreshing and also didn’t get the criticisms. I got the feeling that Mantel took these criticisms into consideration, because (and for me unfortunately) eased up of the “experimental style”. Looking forward to reading about your views of Bring Up the Bodies. It was a best-of-2013 book for me.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m very much looking forward to reading it — I will probably get to it sooner rather than later, though there’s something of a temptation to wait until the third one comes out so I don’t feel I’m on tenterhooks waiting for it. That’s what I’ve been doing with Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy, and it’s no fun!

  10. Melissa says:

    I’m so glad to read your review! Like you I’ve put it off for years and finally started it. I’m only about a chapter in, but your review makes me think I’ll love it!

    • Jenny says:

      I’ll be interested to see what you think! (And I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who put it off!) It made a big impression on me and I’ll look forward to seeing your review.

  11. heavenali says:

    Excellent review. It is a genius book, and so is Bring up the Bodies.

  12. Kailana says:

    I put off reading this, too, and still haven’t… I have the sequel, too. I am so slow!

  13. Teresa says:

    Well, in defense of those who criticized the writing style–as I’m one who found it a *minor* distraction, I think the effectiveness of her style depends a lot on how easily you get immersed in the story. If the story is clicking for you, it probably isn’t noticeable, but if, for whatever reason, the story isn’t clicking, the idiosyncratic style will begin to stick out. Mostly, I liked her prose a lot, but at some points, it was a distraction, but those were most likely points when I was more distractible.

    As for the Booker, I find it no more or less reliable than any other prize. I like looking into the books that make the list, because they often are worthwhile, but it’s a subjective endeavor, and I think the winner sometimes ends up being the one none of the jurors hated. I’ve come to like the Tournament of Books best myself, because they wear their subjectivity like a badge of honor and make the look behind the curtains into the judge’s mind the center of the competition.

    Anyway, I’m glad you read and enjoyed this, although it did mean I had to eliminate one of the books I had on your swap list for this year :)

    • Jenny says:

      I honestly never noticed the pronoun issue even once. And the style seemed pretty straightforward to me most of the time, even workmanlike. But you may be right that it’s because I found the story and characters so gripping.

      Sorry I pulled a switcheroo on you there! This would have been a winner in the book swap for sure! :)

  14. JaneGS says:

    Excellent review of an excellent book. The style is beautiful, and the prose touched me in a very profound way–you’ve been able to explain why more than I could myself.

    Well done.

  15. Yes, yes, and more yes. So glad you enjoyed it. Wolf Hall is, without doubt, my favourite novel. I have reread it three times, twice back to back with Bring Up the Bodies, and every time I have loved it a little bit more. After all the prizes and hype I almost feel embarrassed telling people how much I admire it, because it seems like such a boring thing to say. I get that ‘oh not that again’ look. But I keep on telling people like I’m on a sacred mission. I’d queue at midnight on day of release for The Mirror and the Light. Roll on 2015.

  16. Stefanie says:

    So glad you liked it! I totally understand why it took you four years to get to it, I am often the same way with really popular books. I just started Bring Up the Bodies last week and it is wonderful. I think the criticism about her style got to Mantel a little though as she frequently says things like “he, Cromwell” that she never did do or did rarely in Wolf Hall. It’s too bad, but it hasn’t affected my utter enjoyment of the book thus far.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I’m so glad to hear that — you’re such a discerning reader that (now that I know the hype is not just hype!) I’m pleased to get your recommendation.

  17. So I don’t mind the pronoun thing — or, yes, actually, I hate the pronoun thing, but okay, it’s manageable. I am worried, however, about the portrayal of Anne Boleyn. I like her so much! I like how smart and interesting she seems to have been, and it was totally unfair for her to have gotten beheaded. Cromwell is out of my favor. When I do read Hilary Mantel (again — ugh, I disliked Beyond Black very much), I’ll probably start with Bring up the Bodies. The title’s better anyway. Don’t judge me.

    • Jenny says:

      Don’t worry. The pronoun thing is barely noticeable. First of all, pronouns are SO THAT we don’t have to say “Cromwell” all the time. Second, when the entire book is from Cromwell’s perspective and never from anyone else’s, it makes sense that he would think of himself not by his own name all the time. I don’t go around thinking of myself as Jenny this and Jenny that. I think it’s quite well done.

      Also, don’t worry about Anne Boleyn. She isn’t beloved by very many people around her — obviously — she wasn’t, historically — but it’s quite clear how intelligent and interesting she is and how she’s making her own path clear. Cromwell seems to appreciate her for who she is, whatever he may think of her personally. I do recommend reading it. It’s a glorious book for reading about people.

      • Jenny says:

        But oh, p.s. I don’t judge you, whatever you do. You do what’s best for you! But I do recommend the book.

  18. Christy says:

    What a great review of a book that’s been many timed reviewed (though I personally still haven’t read the book). I often get intimidated when I have to write a review for a book that’s been round and round the blogosphere already.

    • Jenny says:

      I guess I am mostly just a slacker who hasn’t read too many reviews of it, and slackers have a hard time getting intimidated!

  19. Jeanne says:

    I think one of the tests of how well a book is written is whether it can be read well out loud. I first heard this as an audiobook, and it was gripping and wonderful. Your review is so enthusiastic it makes me want to re-read the first one in preparation for the third!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s long for a re-read, but I can see why you’d want to. I know I missed a lot of detail the first time. Glorious!

  20. I could appreciate her writing but just couldn’t immerse myself in this story. The pronouns drove me nuts because not only did it make it difficult to figure out what was going on, but I just couldn’t see the reason for doing it. For me, it just doesn’t compare to historical fiction from, say, Geraldine Brooks whose books I *do* find completely wonderful and compelling and immersive. Ah well, that’s why it’s good that there are so many different authors writing in so many different styles.

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